The Rev. Patrick Keyser
And the word became flesh and lived among us. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
A very merry Christmas to all of you. Each year, I delight in the fact that the church’s celebration of Christmas is founded on the idea that the joy and celebration of the wonderful news of the coming of a savior cannot be contained in just one day and should thus continue for 12 days. This year, though, that joy of Christmas is tinged with a great deal of grief and sadness for so many of us. I have felt this mix of joy and sadness quite acutely myself in these recent days, as I’ve been looking back on this year and its closing days. There has been tremendous, incalculable loss. Loss of life, livelihood, jobs, relationships, hopes, dreams. And then came Christmas, a day that for many of us, though by no means all of us, is a day associated with joy, celebration and spending time with loved ones. This year, Christmas came with losses as well. Traditions and rituals were significantly disrupted. Churches were mostly empty. Gathering with loved ones was difficult, if not impossible. Many felt the sting of grief missing the presence of those who have died this past year. Many others felt the weight of anxiety, unsure how much longer they could afford putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their head. It was a difficult and a heavy day, a day of absence. In her sermon on Christmas Eve, Bishop Mariann invited us to weep when we felt the need to weep, to join the angels who cried at the birth of the Christ child. This invitation was a blessed reminder for all of us at the end of a year in which the loss has been so great. And there has been so much that breaks the heart.
The toll of this year has indeed been great. But amidst it all, we have also caught glimpses of the resiliency of the human spirit. As I reflected on this past year, I looked especially for the moments of grace and the unexpected blessings, both in my own life and in the stories of others. There are of course, countless stories from day to day life that go unreported of neighbors coming together to care for each other, to deliver food, medicine and other essential items to those in need, friends reaching out to those who are isolated and alone. There are two particular moments from these past nine months that are known to us and that came to my mind. In the very early days of this pandemic, when their country had become one of the places hardest hit by the virus and death ravaged their land, Italians in lockdown took to their balconies to sing together songs of hope and encouragement in scenes that charmed the world. A few months later, millions of people across this country, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, took to the streets in the wake of the killing of George Floyd to protest racism and ongoing police brutality in what seems to be the largest movement in the history of this country.
There are too numerous moments from the life of this cathedral congregation, of gathering this fall to baptize and welcome new members to the family of God, of the weekly coffee hours that we’ve shared with so many of you, of the new community of worshipers across this country and across the world that has emerged since March. All are moments of grace, when the light shines through the darkness, we might say. I see too that all are rooted in a desire, a longing for connection in a time when we have been so physically separated from each other. It is one of the cruelest features of this pandemic time that the very thing humans look to to navigate difficult times, the sort of human connection that comes through physical proximity and human touch, that is precisely what must be avoided in order to prevent the spread of this terrible virus. We are creatures of flesh and blood, created to be in community. And our inability to experience this basic need is, I think, at the root of so much of the grief and sorrow we are feeling.
It is in that very place where the message of Christmas meets us this year, offering us good news once again. Good news that has a lot to say about flesh and blood. Christmas Eve brings us the beloved narrative from Luke’s gospel, with shepherds, angels, and the precious newborn child resting in the manger. Luke tells a story situated in a very particular time and particular place. He even lists the names of the emperor and the governor of the region at the time of the child’s birth. John’s gospel, on the other hand, approaches the story from a different angle, taking a cosmic perspective in its prologue we heard this morning. John’s prologue is like a good piece of poetry. Something that is best experienced by just letting it wash over you and sink into your being. Echoing the opening words of Genesis, John takes us to the beginning. Something we cannot completely wrap our minds around and something our words cannot fully describe.
In the beginning was the word.
This term in the Greek logos was long used in philosophy and then adopted into religious discourse, most notably here in John chapter one. The word was there in the beginning. The word with God, the word that is God. The word was there at creation. And through him, all things came into being. Now this talk of logos, of the word, might seem very abstract. I ask you to stick with me though, because that may seem to be the case. The central truth that John’s prologue reveals to us is anything but that. This passage reaches its climax in the proclamation that the word became flesh and lived among us. It is an extraordinary, even scandalous claim. Omnipotent, all mighty God who was in the beginning, who created all things, this God took on human flesh, our fragile humanity, and lived among us.
No other major world religion makes this astonishing claim that God became human. It was no easy task for early Christians to wrap their heads around it either. How could it be that a child born of Mary was also fully God? How could it be that no one has ever seen God? This Jesus, who is close to the father’s heart, makes God known to us. A great deal of contemplation, discussion, and even conflict emerged from the reflections on what in theological terms is called the incarnation, from the Latin meaning, “to make into flesh”. This expression has a very visceral quality to it. The Latin in fact can either be translated as flesh or meat. Think of connections with words like carnivore or even carne in some romance languages. Incarnation then is the language of meat of flesh of our humanity.
One more brief etymological note will offer further insights to this absolutely crucial verse from John chapter one. The word we hear as lived, it really means something like, “to tent” or “to tabernacle”. “Lived” certainly conveys the meaning and a more accessible way in modern English. But we should understand this word to have a real depth of meaning to it, of coming and dwelling, of making a home among us. What becomes so very clear then is that the incarnation, our belief that in Jesus the word indeed became flesh and lived among us, the incarnation is a testament to God’s longing to be close to us. It is God’s way of showing that there are no limits to what God will do to seek us out and find us. There are absolutely no limits to the love God shows us. The loving creator of all that chose to take on our humanity, to share our human life, so that we might in turn share with Christ in the divine life. Jesus comes to us in solidarity, sharing our humanity, our struggles, sorrows joys, our deepest yearnings.
That loneliness that may seem so consuming, that grief and sorrow that pierces your heart, the tears that will not stop. Jesus comes right alongside us and says, “I too have known that loneliness, that grief, that sorrow, I too have wept. You are not alone.”
This is Emmanuel. This is God with us. The incarnation shows us with total clarity that creation, our humanity, our bodies are fundamentally good and indeed a primary way in which we encounter God. God enters into the world, heaven comes down to earth. Jesus shows that creation itself can bear the holiness of God. The incarnation too guides our understanding of the power and importance of sacrament, that in the simple things of the earth, bread, wine, water, oil, human touch, with these simple things, we can come face to face with the presence and power of God. Our hearts long for these sacramental encounters, because our hearts long for God.
As people of the incarnation, we desire in incarnate, fleshy encounters with God and one another. That of course reveals a great paradox and a great challenge of this time we are living through. How can we be people of the incarnation in a time when we are physically isolated from one another? When so much of our lives is mediated virtually, what does the incarnation have to say to us in a time when tangible human encounters are so severely limited? I think we must first acknowledge the difficulty that is so real and so strongly felt. We long to be together again. We long for sacrament, for sharing together in the sacred meal of bread and wine. Our inability to do that grieves our hearts.
There is difficulty, no doubt, but the good news of this day, the good news of Christmas, is that no matter the circumstances, no matter the struggles or pains of this life, God is with us. There is no limit to what God will do to seek us out and find us. Jesus the Christ became flesh and lived among us. And we encounter that divine presence through the centuries old rituals of the church. But we trust too that God is revealed to us in countless other ways. In the wonder of creation and compassionate care and service to others, in worship, in prayer, in your home this very day at this very moment.
Nothing, not even the horrors of this pandemic can stop God’s presence and love from breaking into our world and coming to us. That is the joy and promise of Christmas. It is the good news of which the angels sang, which the shepherds first heard long ago, which propelled the wise men on their journey. It was good news to us to hear in now, in this year of such pain and sorrow. God comes and makes a home among us and says,” I am with you. I have come to make all things new.”