CHRISTMAS EVE 2009
10:30 O’Clock

“One Simple Point”
Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14

“Never confuse faith, or belief – of any kind – with something even remotely intellectual.”
John Irving, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”

It is good to be reminded that the central subject of the Bible and therefore of our Christian Faith is God.

For some time I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Case for God.” It is interesting to me, I can hardly put it down, as Armstrong chronicles the ‘idea’ of God from prehistory through the present. The introduction is alone worth the price of the text; there, Armstrong makes the point that religion is not an idea to be known and believed, but something to be practiced. She succinctly notes that if God is the God of our creeds, then in some sense the ancient sages were correct in saying that “God is nothing.” They stated this because of the limited ability of our language (and our minds) to describe and understand the One through whom all that is came to be. Armstrong speaks of how we know such unknowable things, and it is through ritual and prayer, action or practices. It is why we have layered symbol upon symbol upon you tonight from the flicker of candles to the fresh smell of balsam. It is why, ever so faintly, you may smell the wine and the bread upon the altar.

Long ago I dispensed with my wonder at the attraction to Christmas eve services. There is a mystic spell to Christmas Eve, and as we came into the sanctuary tonight, we may have experienced this perfection, this mystic spell. The sounds of the organ remind us of the sounds of the angels. The hay in the creche reminds us of the hay in the stable. “It is as beautiful as if God came down the stairway of the stars with a baby in his arms and came into our sanctuary and whispered: “Shhhh. Hush. Take my child into your arms. Hold him. Look at him. A baby. Your baby. Let the child’s Spirit fill your heart with grace.” … It is almost perfect tonight, this reenactment of the incarnation.

This is a reminder, not so subtle, but strong. Here we set aside the various other trappings of today and focus on God. Some of these symbols you’ll see elsewhere with different meanings assigned. We are about the work of making meaning tonight, again, remembering the one point of it all. Tonight we do listen, quizzically, to the theological mysteries circumscribed by St. John the evangelist, but rather, on something we can relate to: a person. We like to listen to Luke and his shepherds, Matthew and his Magi. God has come to us in a person. The redeemer of the world is not a good idea or a powerful philosophy, but a person. We call this the incarnation.

Some people identify the lesson from John as part of the prologue to the Gospel. This prologue, in all its earth-shaking faith and profound thinking encompass the grand theology of the Incarnation. It is not concerned with the earthly Jesus but with Christ the Son of God. It reminds us how quickly the early Church arrived at a solid, complex, and intricate theology and that the people writing of the Christ possessed not only great hearts but admirable brains; they confirm also that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged early and was not a creature of the minds that gathered in Nicaea. John was reflecting the deepest beliefs of his community.

Last week I watched “From Jesus to Christ” on PBS. In listening to this reading, we leave the comfortable realm of storytelling as found in the birth narratives and enter the complex realm of intricate theology. This writer lays out the journey for the PBS program. He’s already moved from Jesus to Christ. It is the glorified Christ that matters to him, the same one who appeared to Paul and changed him and the history of humanity unto eternity.

The one who emptied himself to take on human form is on this day the One who was at the beginning with the Father, the one whose word creates with the Father and sustains all things. For its part, the New Testament, too, is focused on God; but this focus is on God incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

I realize that I’ve been using big words. I’ve been talking theology, others will tell you. Some of you will remind me of that fact, you always do. There will be not so subtle complaints. But it is important to me to use this particular word, “Incarnation,” because it is after all the point of these festivities and of our faith. I want to point out that these festivities may seem like those you are accustom to. They will be the ones your children remember with great awe. But they serve, not to transport us back to some nostalgic memory but further into an encounter with the Holy.

Let me warn you: nobody encounters the Holy unscathed. Incarnation means change. It means God coming into our time and into our space and into our lives and into our comfort zone and shaking things up and recreating our world: a new way of life, and challenging us to confront change and to be active in doing something, being co-creators with God in the world around us. We cannot, must not, encounter the greatness of God and return to things as they were.

In John Irving’s book “A Prayer For Owen Meany” the main character Owen is part of a Nativity play at the local church. His parents tried to pass along their disgust with their church, their ‘bigotry’ toward believers. And Owen, cast as the baby Jesus because of his slight stature sits up on the manger in the middle of the play and derides them, saying it is a “sacrilige” that they are attending. They are there, of course, for the wrong reasons. But cannot anyone be transformed by so marvelous and mysterious a message?

Christmas is nothing but a constant celebration year after year after year that no year is ever the same and that our lives are never the same and that every year we are, in fact, older and, hopefully, wiser but still engaged with our God, the God of history, in making things happen. And tonight we are about the work of encountering God. This encounter is available to anyone, to everyone.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” What is more important than this reality that we are urged to grasp onto on this Christmas eve? Nothing! The eyewitness of John’s gospel assures us: “We have seen his glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.” In this encounter we learn that we do not go into the future alone. We do not face the unknown without the One who knows. We do not leave this place without the real presence of Christ going with us. Let us then rejoice and be glad.

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