Many years ago I spent a number of weeks in that ancient, medieval hometown of St. Francis, Assisi. It is still—tourists, pilgrims, and earthquake notwithstanding—a very small village, nearer to heaven and to the heart of God than any place else I have ever visited. The experience of Assisi convinced me that this is what I could expect at any Italian city, short of Rome. So when the Eurostar train pulled into the modern station of Santa Maria Novella in Florence I expected that once I walked out of the station that Florence would be a bigger, more urbane, Renaissance version of Assisi, untouched except for the addition of a few modern conveniences, notably indoor plumbing. I was absolutely sure of this in spite of the fact that Florence is surrounded by industrial sites all of which we had passed on our way to the city.
As I stepped out of the station this is what I saw: a forest of walking fur coats that were simultaneously talking to one another and on their mobile phones, all the while furiously smoking cigarettes. There were throngs of people everywhere making their way to each of the city’s town squares in order to engage in the Italian equivalent of “shop ’til you drop” fourteen days before Christmas. As we slowly made our way to the hotel through the crush of humanity, I wondered where the grand palazzos, private chapels, and old shops were behind the luxury hotels and the twenty-first century façades, which read like a “Who’s Who” of the Italian fashion industry: Prada, Versace, Missoni, Pucci, and Ferragamo, who, by the way, merits his own shoe museum, perhaps not quite on par with the Ufizi Gallery. After we had registered and gotten into our hotel room I lay down on the bed deeply disillusioned. I had not traveled all this way to experience Italians acting just like Americans before Christmas. Nor was I especially grateful for my newfound knowledge that Christmas shopping has permeated all western cultures.
It is easy in this pulpit and in this season of Christmas in particular to bewail how readily we turn this holy time into the largest commercial venture of the year for merchants worldwide. This short season, which was to serve as a counterpart to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia—the consummate ancient part of the year—readily reverts to exactly the feast it was meant to overcome. Yet we should not depart this place and throw ourselves down on our respective beds and give up. Nor should we in the name of true religion condemn Christmas as the Puritans once did for being too rich and insufficiently godly. God is not above using our commercialism for God’s own purposes. In the Gospel of John appointed for today the most important point the evangelist wants to make is that the pivotal fact of our faith is that God exchanged divine reality to participate fully in human life. In far more eloquent language than I can offer it is expressed this way: “and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.” The wonderful surprise here is that the Latin word used in this, and other Scripture passages, for this exchange of God’s life for ours is the word commercium. It is, of course, the source of two English words that we use all of the time, commercial and communication.
Yet the commerce of God is not about buying gifts and giving them and receiving them as we typically understand this. The commerce of God is about the priceless gift of God’s own Son to humankind and all of creation for reconciliation. The commerce of God entails being born into a “world that knew him not,” a world in which the hard wood of the cross is not ever far from the wood of the manger. The brilliant night light of angels announcing the birth of Jesus is not ever far from the first rays of the sun on the morning of the resurrection. The commerce of God is about aiding one another through the tangible communicating and commercial signs of everyday life such as bread, wine, water, oil, rings, hands laid on heads, and hands clasped in peace, seeing God in it all and in response living as the spirit-filled flesh we are created to be. The commerce of God is not about the strings of light that formed great canopies over all the streets illuminating all the commercial shopping areas in every Italian city we visited. It is about the light of the Word that shines on and in this world and no darkness overcomes it. The commerce of God is about the Word, which left its homeland so that we might be at home in this gathering and everywhere God is.
To all who accept and receive this light of the world with us is given the power to become children of God. This is the key to the true meaning of the birth of Jesus. To paraphrase writer Karen Armstrong it is not about our giving to one another, but our willingness to receive the gift of God who is Jesus. As God’s children we are not to be overly dazzled by the commerce and history of this world because we are participants in the commerce and history of God’s saving work in this world. Like John, we too are sent to carry this divine commercial message that the Son who is close to the Father’s heart has become flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. In Jesus we see and hear everything God ever wanted to be and say to us. Through Jesus we have been given the possibility to draw near to the heart of God and to receive the grace of divinity as in Jesus we give the grace of our humanity to God. This is a giving and receiving of gifts that surpasses any that we can ask for or imagine.
Eventually I rose from my bed and decided to give Florence another chance. The sea of talking, moving, buying, selling, and bartering humanity remained. It was after all market day in what had always been, even in the days of the Medicis, an exceptional shopping town. Yet even the power and allure of some of the world’s finest commercial enterprises could not obscure the churches where people still went simply to pray to the Word made flesh celebrated in so many great works of the human spirit and imagination. With doors always open amid the shopping, the churches were often the quiet escape for a moment of encounter with what is freely given by God, grace and peace, truth and love, a Son for salvation, a Spirit to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to what is always available from God.
Whether we are lonely and exiled by our expectations, our sin and sorrow, the sadness of this life’s events, relationships that are not what they seem—the whole catalogue of life’s hardships, if not disasters—we learn soon enough in this consuming and commercial culture that we cannot buy, or give, or receive anything of our own making that ultimately relieves what can and does go wrong with this life. It was through the commerce of God that this terrible burden was both understood and relieved by what is priceless in any language: the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. God chose to pitch a tent in our lives once so long ago and this means that wherever we are and every age the commerce of God is ready to give this gift of life, of light to you and to me for the life of the world. Whatever we have given or will give this season. Whatever we have received or will receive, none of it will ever be greater than this gift of God for the people of God. Amen.