Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: Christmas

Christmas Day 2016

Preached at 10am on Christmas Day, at CSMSG. A Sunday this year, the congregation was considerably larger than usual for Christmas Day in the morning!

Collect: Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One Christmas not long ago, I was talking with one of my college students, who was preparing to be baptized in a few months’ time at the Easter Vigil. He grew up in a completely secular household, no religious experience whatsoever, and naturally he was curious about Christmas. “What’s it all about?” he asked. He already knew about the baby Jesus and the manger, it’s hard to grow up even as an atheist and remain in complete ignorance about things like that. But he wanted to know more. What did it mean? How did a *Christian* keep the feast?

Now you might think that a priest of all people would be ready with an answer for the question “What does Christmas mean?” But I confess, to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I froze. What does Christmas mean? For a priest, you might as well ask, ‘What do you think about the air you’re breathing?’ ‘Well I don’t know.’ It’s something that comes so naturally, that is such an integral, necessary part of daily life, that without conscious effort it’s hard to get the critical distance necessary even to think about it.

I mumbled some kind of answer about the Incarnation, and the plan of salvation, but that Christmas is also more than all those theological things… Somehow I couldn’t communicate the kind of imagination Christmas creates for the Christian believer, the way in which its events and promises seep into every part of our lives, the way they infuse every corner of life and creation with divine splendor and quiet grace, with the conviction that something more is possible, that there is always more than meets the eye; that no matter how dire or seemingly final, there is always new life beginning right here and just around the corner. But I couldn’t get all this out, and continued to play the idiot struggling for words.

Finally I gave up and recommended he just watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special: and if you get nothing else out of this sermon, hear me recommend Charlie Brown as a great introduction to a Christmas imagination!

My student went home and by all accounts had a wonderful first Christmas as a Christian believer. But I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. At risk of indulging in a little self-justification, this morning I want to offer just a few additional thoughts that might help us begin to have a “Christmas imagination” ourselves.

In Advent the central tension of the season was that there are really two Advents: the first Advent of Christ, when he was born today in a manger so many centuries ago; and his second Advent, when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge both the quick and the dead, when every tear shall be wiped from every eye and all shall be made new. In the season of Advent we looked forward to both Advents, and this is the central creative tension of the season.

You might think that this tension gets resolved at Christmas, as our waiting and God’s promise meet in the Christ Child in the manger. And you’d be right, to a point: Christmas resolves Advent’s waiting by the celebration of what is here, what we are faced with, now, in Bethlehem. But this isn’t all. The creative tension continues on another tack. This is indeed the feast of the Nativity of Christ. But there is more than one Nativity which we celebrate here.

There is a reason that by the most ancient Christian tradition there are always three masses celebrating the Lord’s Nativity: one in the evening on Christmas Eve, one late at night running into early Christmas Day, and one today, on Christmas Day in the morning. Three services, with three different sets of readings, and three different collects. Three services because there are really three Nativities. And this is the creative tension of Christmas.

Three nativities. What are they? The first Nativity is from the beginning of eternity, the Son of God eternally begotten from the bosom of the Father: we recall this Nativity every time we say the Creed, or for that matter, every time we sing O Come All Ye Faithful: “God of God, Light from Light eternal…Word of the Father…” “Not made, without whom nothing was made that was made.” This Child born in a manger is more than he seems: he is the ruler of all the starry host before whom angels bow in worship and even the devils bend the knee. This is part of what is so awe-inspiring about Christmas, that such a one as this should come to such a place as this stable, to seek and save such sinners as you and I.

The second Nativity is the one we might know better: Linus on the stage, reciting for Charlie Brown the Angelic chorus to the shepherds: 

This is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown: ‘And lo, an angel of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly thee was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.’

This is the Nativity we celebrate with the artwork on so many Christmas cards, with the crèche in church and so many manger scenes on front lawns and village squares around the world. For that matter this is the Nativity we recall every single Sunday as begin our worship with the angels’ Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Here is the beginning of salvation in earnest: a savior, concrete and personal, who comes from God on high not to condemn but to save, through the slow, taxing, charming progress of personal love, through poverty, betrayal, death, and beyond.

Finally, the third Nativity is the one we celebrate this morning, at this third service of Christmas on Christmas Day, in the light of that “new and glorious morn” which the Christmas carols herald. What Nativity is this? The Nativity of our Lord, his birth afresh, in the heart of every Christian: wherein your heart and mine becomes another manger to receive him ourselves. The Savior’s birth is the beginning of new life for the whole world; but it is also the beginning of life for you too, and for me. No matter how rude the stable, no matter how crude the beasts which dwell there, no matter how dark the night of sin and wrong, Christ comes to be born in you and me too, shining the Light from light eternal on all our gloom and dis-ease. This is the greatest mystery of all, one we commemorate this morning especially, but also with every prayer we offer, every forgiveness we grant, every act of mercy made in his Name, and chief of all every time we come to the Eucharist, receiving him afresh under the signs of bread and wine. Christ born in our hearts, the third and greatest Nativity.

Three Nativities, three great celebrations over these holy days. But they are only the beginning. Christ eternally begotten of his Father, Christ born of Mary, Christ in you and me: this is the whole mystery which you and I explore our entire lives long as Christians. This is the mystery in which not just the meaning of Christmas but our own meaning is revealed as well. This is the mystery by which we are brought before the face of God. Let it be to us this year a new beginning, a refreshment, and a challenge: to live as Christmas people all through the year, imaginations alive to the Christ child.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas

nativity

The Nativity. Giotto, c. 1320. Church of San Francesco, Assisi.

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, December 27, 2015, the first Sunday after Christmas, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. This Sunday we reverted to the “summer” schedule of services, holding two at 8am and 10am rather than the slate of three at 8, 9:15, and 11:15. The 5:30pm service remains as usual.

Collect: Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 61:10-61:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Our Gospel passage from John today is one of those several passages we get this time of year which seem to thunder out with a special resonance all their own.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more famous passage or a more influential text than the prologue to John’s Gospel.  Beloved by philosophers and theologians, preachers and praying Christians throughout the ages, it has shaped the Church in profound ways.

For centuries, this was the so-called “Last Gospel,” read after the dismissal at the end of every mass.  It also serves as one of the chief sources for the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ.  One of my favorite possessions is a series of commentaries on the four Gospels compiled by Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and translated into English by John Henry Newman in the 19th: it consists of meditations on the Gospel texts by several dozen of the chief saints and doctors of the early church.  These 18 verses of the prologue to John make up slightly less than 2% of the Gospel, but so important a place did it hold in the praying lives of these ancient writers that more than 12% of their commentary is devoted to it.  This passage continues today as one of the most often-quoted summaries of Christian belief, and as one of the most inspiring of religious sentiments.  Queen Elizabeth herself quoted it in her own Christmas message this year: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

For all its popularity and profundity though, this morning I only want to make two observations on this text.  First, that we’re getting it at Christmastime, and second, that we’ve gotten it twice now: once on Christmas Day, and again this morning, on the first Sunday after Christmas.  Why Christmas?  And why twice?

First of all, as I’ve often said before, here and in other contexts, Christmas can be an intensely theological, intellectual exercise, full of overlapping symbolism and densely interwoven metaphors.  The same can be said of John’s Gospel.

The Baby in the manger might very well be the answer to all our questions, the end of all our striving, the Mind of God and his eternal Word.  But there is no question he himself can answer: He cannot even speak yet!  And there is no rest he himself can offer: He cannot even sleep through the night yet.  To hear such a rarefied Gospel at Christmas is a way of reminding us that we do not come to his cradle in order to “figure him out,” or even to consider his message.  We come to Jesus’ cradle as we would come to any other cradle: to allow our affections to be warmed by the sight of a baby, and for our hearts to grow, creating a place for him in our love.  This is John’s point too: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  The cradle is the point where our striving, our figuring, stops, and our loving begins; where we ourselves are born afresh, children of this newborn baby by whom the stars were set in their courses.

But twice?  Why should we hear the same thing twice in such quick succession?  If you’ve spent any time in church at all, you will have noticed that redundancy is a fairly common occurrence.  They say preachers have only one sermon (and I’m afraid you’re getting mine yet again!).  We have two or three crosses in most processions, legion vestigial references to long-past fashions and liturgical patterns.  We bless everything multiple times in the course of a service, and we kneel, stand, sit, and cross ourselves often with seemingly inscrutable logic.

Redundancy is everywhere in the church.  But remember John’s point: Jesus’ cradle is where our striving stops and where our loving begins.  And Love is full of redundancies.

In love, how many times is too many to express affection?  How many times is too many to be patient, to be kind?  How many times is too many to forgive?  How many times is too many to act with tenderness?  Make no mistake, love is a fundamentally redundant exercise; there is nothing efficient or precise about it, there is no end product, there is no final goal, only its own fulfillment.  It is its own reward, its own product, its own end.

It sounds like a lovely thing when I put it that way, but in practice it is actually deeply unsettling.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard couples either dating or already married say to me, that they don’t know how to recognize themselves anymore, they’re saying and doing things they never imagined themselves saying and doing.  Lots of things for good, but also lots of things that hurt each other.  The truth is that love unsettles us.

This child in the manger demanding nothing but love is a conundrum.  We may prefer the delightful poetry of love to the brass tacks of the way the world works, but at the end of the day we have to admit, it’s a relief to have metrics of efficiency and precision to fall back on, to know that we have done our duty.  Love of any sort defies those sorts of metrics.  A child does not count the number of good night kisses he receives from his parents and present them with a quarterly report.  A bride does not keep a quota of the flowers or notes she receives from her groom, to alert him when more becomes wasteful or unnecessary to her.  A widow does not track her dreams of her departed husband, or wish for them to stop, even though they cause her pain on waking.  Our favorite metrics of accomplishment and productivity do not make much sense when it comes to love.

At the cradle in Bethlehem, they fail entirely.  And that’s as it should be.  The Baby in the manger does not come to make the world a more efficient machine, more capable of producing results; at least not the kind we can analyze or sell.  He does not come to gratify our desires or to fill our appetites.  The Baby in the manger comes not to make our lives better, but to make them right; and that means that we are going to have to give up wome of our most highly cherished ways and means.  Jesus demands love, first and last, and that means that our favorite metrics will need to take a backseat to his, the chief of which is the Cross.

How willing are we to make sacrifices for the love of God?  How willing are we to make sacrifices for the people in our life?  Reputation, honor, influence, regard, possessions, even hopes and ideals; all of them are subject to the cross.  If we are tender with the Christ child at his cradle, we must be prepared to follow him to the cross.  If we are tender with each other in his name, we must be prepared to lose everything in the course of our loving, and still keep on loving all the same.

So what am I saying?  The point here is that the child who is born has come to make children of us all.  The wood of his manger leads us to the tree of his Cross; his swaddling bands lead us to his shroud in the tomb.  His life ends the death in which the world had languished long; his death brings us all eternal life.  Let us then hasten to his cradle to adore him, and, loving him in all things and above all things, find our souls refreshed and delivered, true children of God and citizens of Paradise; wounded by the same love which is our life, but in its scars beholding his glory: Glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.

A Christmas Message

"The Mystical Nativity." Sandro Botticelli, c.1500-01 National Gallery, London.

“The Mystical Nativity.” Sandro Botticelli, c.1500-01 National Gallery, London.

The following letter was written for my students at Brown & RISD, and sent to them via email on December 31, 2014 — the Seventh Day of Christmas this year in addition to being New Year’s Eve.  Tonight Christmas is still on my mind, and since it is also the Twelfth (and final) Night of Christmastide I thought it might be fitting to post the text of the letter here.  Consider it a brief seasonal meditation from someone who is always sad to see Christmas pass into the year’s rear-view mirror.

Dear All,

This note brings Christmas greetings, for the Seventh Day of Christmas (also known as New Year’s Eve).  I hope you all are keeping jolly with your various swans a-swimming, partridges in pear-trees, and other festive accoutrements.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with Christmas as a season rather than as just a day, so I thought I would write a few words here in the interests of enlightening the whole group.

Seven is a familiar number in Scripture: seven days of creation, seventy “weeks” of exile in Babylon, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven lamps for the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation; the seventh day a day of sabbath rest; you can probably come up with more.  It is a number of completion, of finitude.  In Christian theology, the number eight serves as an additional commentary on the number seven.  The new creation follows from the old, but begins a new thing: it is the eighth day of the week, the last of the old and the first of the new, no longer finite, now without end in the eternal splendor of God’s glory.  The major feasts of the Christian year are celebrated on their day, but the festal spirit continues for eight days – called an “octave” (those of you who are musical will catch the connection!).  This gives us time to celebrate the person or event the feast commemorates, but it also forces us to look forward to the day when that which the holiday inaugurates will be experienced in full.

There are a few dozen feasts in our calendar with “octaves” following them. But two are so significant that their octaves are extended, and their respective celebrations are carried across a longer span of time.  Those two are Christmas and Easter.  Easter’s octave is especially long: fifty days (basically a mirror image of Lent but slightly longer), in which every day is celebrated as though it were Easter Sunday itself.  Christmas is the other one: with a less exhausting, twelve-day octave, beginning with Christmas Day (hence the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” motif, and “Twelfth Night” parties, and the Shakespeare play). What would be the “thirteenth” day of Christmas is the feast of the Epiphany: January 6, when the three kings make visits to the baby Jesus with gifts, an occasion referred to theologically as “The Manifestation to the Gentiles.”

The twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany are known as “Christmastide” — consisting essentially of the extended Christmas octave, and composing the shortest “season” of the church year.  Along with Easter, the proper liturgical color of the season is gold (where churches possess it, otherwise white).  They are days of especially intentional celebration, and of prayer: in the words of one of the Christmas collects, that “we might be made partakers of his divinity who humbled himself to share our humanity.”  This is the central mystery of the Christian Gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant rabbi and son of a carpenter, executed in the first century for what amounts to sedition, is the Son of God, the Messiah of Jewish expectation, the incarnate Word by whom all things were made, and the One in whom all things will be brought to their perfection in the presence of his Father and ours.

Christmas is therefore an intensely theological feast, full of subtleties and compounding images.  And yet for all its subtlety, there is also something instantly recognizable about it, something very intimate, and always fresh. Christmas is not nearly so explosive as Easter: there are no earthquakes, no armies, no mobs; no “death of death, and hell’s destruction.”  Only a quiet night in a small town with a proud heritage from too long ago to overcome the poverty of the present. Shepherds doing what they had done for millennia. Townspeople reacting as you might expect under the frustrating weight of yet another seemingly arbitrary imperial decree.  In such a place as this, full of the long sweep of human normalcy, the threads of salvation were being woven together in startling array: despite the darkness of the night outside, despite the ancient, seemingly unalterable patterns which life was known to take.  A line from 16th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert puts it this way: “O Thou, whose glorious yet contracted light, wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger: since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, be not to man of all beasts a stranger.” Christmas is intensely theological, and yet in the same breath at the same time it is deeply personal: promising a newness, a freshness, which is also strangely a homecoming.

In the face of such quiet grace as this, we can do nothing but wonder at God’s love, and adore the Child in his mother’s arms.  Can it be true?  The shepherds say they heard angels singing, and wise men from the east were seen bringing rich and precious gifts.  We go to Bethlehem too, to see for ourselves.  What will we do when we arrive?  Will we bring gifts?  Will we ask questions?  Will we pledge our service?  However we are inclined to respond, our hearts are brought up short before the baby and his mother.  There is no service a newborn can reward, no questions a sleeping baby can field, no gift his tiny hands can open.  Before the manger our hearts stop their striving, and they behold a scene of pure Love.  This Child does not require gifts; he is himself the gift, to you, to me, to the whole world.  We can only open our hearts to him, and love him in return.

This free exchange of love is at the heart of the whole feast.  It is the source of the freshness we intuit at the manger, and the assurance of new life which the Incarnation promises.  In loving the Christ child we are brought through all the subtleties of philosophy and theology to the Thing Itself: Emmanuel, God With Us, to be himself our firmest friend and our eternal home.

I will leave you with a Christmas Carol I’ve only just discovered in the last few days, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”  Maybe you know it already, but if so it’s worth repeating.  The words were written by Frances Chesterton, wife of the prolific 19th/20th century English author, apologist, and commentator G.K. Chesterton.  This poem has been set to music several times since it was written, but the version I’ve linked below is my favorite – an adaptation of a 16th century English folk melody.  I hope you find it as charming as I did.

With continued prayers, every blessing for a happy Christmastide and joyful New Year, and all good wishes for a refreshing break-

Yours faithfully,

Blake+

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Words: Frances Chesterton
Music: 16th century English folk melody (adapted)

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little child,
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there,
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch his tiny hand
Will he awake?
Will he know we’ve come so far
Just for his sake?

Great kings have precious gifts,
And we have naught,
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we brought.

For all weary children
Mary must weep.
Here, on his bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.

God in his mother’s arms,
Babes in the byre,
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.