Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, December 30, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|Isaiah 61:10-62:3||Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7|
|Psalm 147:13-21||John 1:1-18|
The Word became flesh
To the world at large, Christmas has come and gone. December 25th is behind us, we have finished with the shopping and the exchange of gifts, so presumably now is the time to be done with the season, to take down the lights, to pack away the crèche, set the tree on the curb, and move on to thinking about something else. Christmas is behind us – that’s what the world would say. But for Christians, Christmas has only just begun. We have only just begun to explore the incarnation and to savor the gift that God is giving us in the birth of Christ. Here on the first Sunday after Christmas we are right at the center of the Twelve Days of Christmas, with plenty of time to relish the mystery of the Word made flesh and to do what Mary did at the manger: to treasure this birth and to ponder it in our heart (Luke 2:19). As a priest told me years ago, over these twelve days we should take our time and soak ourselves in the message of God’s love as patiently as tea bags in a cup of tea.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:1, 14, 18). These lines, culled from the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John, often called the Prologue of John, express the same mysterious truth that the other Gospel writers evoke in the stories of shepherds and angels, of a birth in a stable, of a visit by wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The hidden God, the mysterious, ungraspable, unseen and unseeable divine Presence who is the ground of all things, and who infuses, embraces, and constitutes all things, has become seen and known in Jesus Christ. Through an act of creative self-giving, the hidden, unknown God has been born as one of us. The formless has taken form; the hidden has been revealed; the ungraspable can now be picked up and rocked as a baby in its mother’s arms. The Word has become flesh and has lived among us.
What does this mean, and why does it matter? I grew up thinking that Christ’s birth was something that took place just once, long ago, in a far away place, to a person I would never know. Jesus of Nazareth was somehow both fully human and fully divine, and the rest of us lowly human beings could only marvel and worship from afar. But if we imagine that the incarnation is something that happens only once, and only to someone else, then what meaning can it have for us, and what power does it have to change our lives? How astonished I was when I first heard about the teachings of the so-called Church Fathers – teachers and writers in the early Church, such as Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria and Athanasius – who spoke about “divinization,” the process by which human beings are so transformed by the grace of God that we share in God’s nature; we participate in God’s very being, and become in a sense divine. These early Christians were convinced that God became human so that humans might become divine. Reading them, I began to see that maybe the incarnation was not only for Jesus Christ. Maybe the incarnation was in fact our human destiny, the very purpose for which we were created.
As I was writing my little book of Advent and Christmas meditations, each one based on a reading from the Daily Office – the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer – I was struck by a passage from Second Peter: “Become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). There it was again, right there in the Bible – the notion that human beings can evolve to a point, or mature to a point, where we consciously participate in God. “Become participants of the divine nature.” That is an amazing invitation!
So – what if at Christmas we are celebrating not only Jesus’ birth, but our own birth, too, the possibility that we, too, can share in the divine life, that we, too, can become bearers of the eternal Word? What if it turns out that our own being is filled with the infinite, creative, and mysterious presence that we call “God”? What if our own deepest self is in God, and in fact is God, since we have been created in God’s image and likeness? What if, as the Quakers would say, there is that of God in us?
In a world filled with so much unhappiness, with so much ugliness, confusion, agitation, and violence, what would it be like if more and more of us came to understand that our call in life is to become divine, to allow the divine life to flow more and more freely through us, so that less and less of ourselves is getting in the way, less and less of ourselves is blocking and obstructing that flow? What would it be like, moment by moment, to remember who we are and whose we are, and to speak and act and choose accordingly? What would it be like to remember how much goodness we human beings carry within us, how much holiness and beauty?
This may sound like an ego trip, but of course it’s not. As the contemporary spiritual teacher James Finley often says, mystics don’t take pride in their visions or religious experiences; instead, the mystics say: look at what Love has done in my life. When we practice incarnation – when day by day we try to open ourselves to God and to participate consciously in the divine nature – we allow God’s love to affect us, to change us, to flow into us and through us. It is a humbling practice. Day by day we open to love and try to get out of the way.
I came across a short video on YouTube1 that shows how this works. The clip was made by a Buddhist teacher in the Shambhala lineage, not by a Christian, and it never mentions God – yet it gives everyone, whatever our beliefs, a way to awaken to the truth of who we are. The video starts with black and white images of urban life – we see crowds, traffic, the hustle and bustle of people hurrying off to work. We see an alarm clock go off, and someone turning on the stove to make morning coffee. We hear a man saying, “What about me? That’s my first thought every morning. What happened to me? is the last thought every night. Has this got me anywhere? Any more friends? Any more love? Any more joy? It should have, by now! In fact, by now I should be a bundle of joy! Because I say this mantra every day: What about me? What about me? In fact, it’s embarrassing: I say this mantra all day long, like the beating of my heart: What. About. Me?”
We see images of a man driving, shopping for groceries, and going through all the routines of daily life. And the narrator presses on, saying, “When I take a shower, I think: What about me? I hope this shower makes me feel happy. I hope this kiss makes me feel happy. I hope this lunch makes me feel happy. I hope these clothes make me feel happy. I hope this donut, this cup of coffee, this new affair, this new job — What about me? What about me?”
We see a man in dark glasses standing motionless on a city street, looking baffled and lost, staring glumly at nothing, and finally the narrator says, “You know what? None of it will make you happy unless you do one simple thing: change ‘me’ for ‘you,’ ‘me’ for ‘you.’” The black and white images suddenly turn to color. We see a man lying on his back on a field of grass, eyes open, fully awake, and the narrator exclaims, “Let’s wake up in the morning and try something wild. Let’s break up the monotony and say: May you be happy. May you be happy.” What about you? That question gives so much more love, so much more joy! And the narrator continues, “When I give you a big fat kiss, when I take a shower, when I make my bed, when I dance, may it make you happy! When I give you the remote control, may it make you happy! When I sit on a park bench by myself, when I feel the sun and the breeze, may it make you happy! When I just look at you…may it make you happy.” The video concludes, “You know what? When you’re happy, I’m happy. That’s the formula: first you, then me. That’s what happiness is. It’s just the heart being free.”
That’s what happiness is, and that’s the incarnation, too: when we share in the divine life of joyful self-giving. I’m not talking about co-dependence, about ignoring our own needs, but rather about opening our eyes and minds and hearts to the God-given preciousness of other people and the whole creation. God is constantly pouring out God’s self into the world and as the world, giving God’s self to us, right here, and now, and now, in this very moment. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” And the Word becomes flesh and lives again and again among us whenever we open to the love that is hidden in each moment, whenever we allow ourselves to be pulled by love out of the enclosure of our self-absorption and to be freed from self-concern.
Yes, we have only just begun to explore the incarnation and to savor the gift that God is giving us in the birth of Christ. Day by day, God willing, Christ will be born a little more fully into our thoughts, into our intentions, into the very cells of our bodies, and the light that is enkindled in our hearts will shine forth more fully in our lives.
1. Mipham – What About Me, by film producer/director Chewyguru: youtu.be/FDSAAlrqAHM.