Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Light of Christmas

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of 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. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 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: 1-18

About four miles from my childhood home in Flat Gap, VA there was a house.  It was a small, unassuming place, but there was one peculiar thing about this little house.  It had these blue Christmas lights that covered it.  Now the blue lights were not the peculiar bit.  What was peculiar was that those lights stayed up ALL YEAR LONG!  They never come down.  Sometimes, even in the springtime, we would drive by that house and see those lights on.  I never knew why they left them up, and though my family has since moved away from there, I'm betting those blue Christmas lights are still up.

Blue Christmas lights.  Enough said.  NOT the house from my childhood!

This week we get a different take on the Christmas story.  It's actually the one that we heard on Christmas morning, for those who may have attended such a service at your local Episcopal parish.  John does not have a manger, shepherds, or even a Bethlehem.  John's Christmas story echoes the creation story of Genesis, they even begin with the same words en arche, "in [the] beginning."  There God breaks through the darkness of chaos by saying, "Let there be light."  But the light being created is not the sun; after all, that does not get created until the fourth day.  The light being created in Genesis is the light of love and consciousness.  As Christians, of course, we interpret this as God speaking Jesus into existence into the world.  Mirroring this dynamic, John's prologue refers to Jesus as the Logos or Word, which is the light of all creation. The Word through which all things were made steps out into the darkness and burns brightly in the middle of it.  Whether you believe Jesus was born in a house (Matthew) or in a manger (Luke), is irrelevant here.  That message, the message of the light of God coming into the world is physical form, is John's whole point, and indeed the point of Christmas iteself.

When we think about this incredible feat, that God's light has come into the world, how can we not want to leave those Christmas lights up all year long?  If those lights serve as a reminder of Christmas, a reminder that Jesus has come among us, why on earth would we not want to them to burn throughout the entire year?  Aside from the ridiculously high electric bills. 

Jesus has come into the world.  It is a world that can be very dark and scary at times.  We could use a little light.  Regardless of how you feel about blue lights at Christmas time, I think we could stand to have more folks like those old neighbors of mine, who keep those lights up to serve as a reminder of God's love for us in Jesus throughout the year, even if that wasn’t their intention.

But notice that John does not say that the light destroys the darkness.  It shines in the middle of it.  Sometimes it's just a flicker.  Sometimes we can barely see it.  Sometimes it's a single candle or a blue Christmas light. But it's there.  It's always there.  God's light, the light of Jesus, can never be extinguished. 

Here’s the thing about darkness, it doesn’t really exist.  Darkness is simply the absence of light, but once you bring light in darkness scatters and is gone.  Darkness is literally no thing.  John’s proclamation that the light that burned at creation in the darkness of chaos has come into the world is a reminder that that same light, Jesus, has never left the world.  There has never been a moment that the light wasn't in the world, thus there has never really been a moment when the world is truly in darkness.  And if we are the Body of Christ, then surely that must mean that the light is in us, too.  I wonder what it would mean for us to know that, to see it in ourselves and in one another.  To borrow from Thomas Merton, I wonder what it would mean to tell people that they are walking around shining like the sun (or Son, for that matter).

I heard a story once of a old abbot whose monastery was falling apart.  There was disunion among the brothers, and the abbot was losing patience.  The community would fold, he thought, if something drastic didn't happen.  So he consulted the town's old rabbi, said to be the wisest person around.  "What do I do?" the abbot asked.  "The monks are fighting everyday, and I'm afraid that our community will die."  The old rabbi said simply, "The Messiah is in your midst."  The abbot was shocked. The Messiah?  He ran back to the monastery and shared the news with his brothers.   They were elated but did not know which one of them could be the Messiah.  So they decided to treat one another as though each were Christ himself.  They did this for each other and for every visitor to that monastery, treating everyone as though they themselves were Jesus.  And the monastery thrived.

Amazing things happen when we see the Christ light in one another. I've seen people this week taking down their Christmas decorations, taking down those lights.  It makes me sad because it's as though they're putting away the light of Christmas way too early.  Sometimes I wish they were more like that little house back in Virginia that leaves the lights on all the time. But we all know that the light of Christmas is not in a bulb or decorations, but it is Christ himself, the light of the world that shines in each and every person.  When we see it, when we recognize Jesus in our families, our friends, our strangers, and even our enemies, ordinary people do extraordinary things, and the world moves closer to the Kingdom of God.  Whenever you feel the darkness creep in, remember that the light has already come into the world. So may God's light shine in you and from you today and always, and may we recognize the reality that we are all shining with the brightness of the Son.. Merry Christmas!

The Scandal of the Incarnation

'In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.'
--Luke 2: 1-7

An Eastern icon of the Nativity of Christ.

Did you ever notice how Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth?  I’m not talking about the manger or the shepherds, but the birth itself.  Did you ever notice that Luke doesn’t actually say anything about the birth?  Here’s how Luke puts it:  “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” Did you catch that?  There is no story of the actual birth.  No labor, as if Jesus just magically popped out of there. It's easy, then for us to forget that Jesus was, indeed, born, because the Gospels—all of them—avoid the messy reality that is a human birth. 

Now, I have not witnessed a birth personally, but one thing I do know is that they are not pleasant, meek, mild, clean experiences.  There’s a lot of yelling and crying.  There’s a lot of pain.  There’s a lot of fluid.  It ain’t exactly a pretty picture.  Yet in this messiness is beauty, indescribable, magnificent, holy beauty wrapped in the messiness of the human experience.  Little baby Jesus did not magically appear in his mother’s arms, and with all due respect to Away in a Manger, the little Lord Jesus a whole lot of crying he made.  His mother’s clothes weren’t perfectly wrinkle-free and clean, nor did she have every hair in place.  Some of you may be recalling the births of your own children, maybe thinking back to how painful it felt, how yucky you felt throughout, and yet, when it was complete, how incredibly beautiful you, your child, and the whole experience were.  This, brothers and sisters, is quite possibly the most extraordinary, the most scandalous aspect of the Incarnation:  Jesus was born, the divine beauty wrapped in the messiness of the human experience. 

It was a messy world that Jesus entered into.  Military and political might made right.  Religious and cultural minorities were silenced and afforded little to no human decency.  People were often distracted by their own desires and the preservation of their own self-interests that they ignored the injustices committed all around them.  Come to think of it, the world that Jesus entered wasn't unlike the messy, painful world that we live in today. All the more reason that we should hear this story once again. 

It is so very important for us to hear because it’s not a story bound to a long time ago in a little town far, far, away.  We might wonder sometimes what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph that night when they could not give birth to their son in the main room of the family home—as would have been the custom—or in some kind of facility where they would have been cared for by a physician—as would likely be our custom today—but we don’t have to look far to understand.  Even my own birth took place on a couch because my mother had a flat tire and couldn’t get to the hospital!  And every day young women Mary’s age bring children they love with the same passion that Mary loved Jesus into the world in cars, under bridges, and in detention centers because they have no other option.  To be sure, births such as these remind us of the immediate need for accessible health care for women, but they also bring us back to the animal feeding trough in Bethlehem, to the painful messiness of that night, where we are reminded once again that God steps into the mess of this world not in glitz and glamor but in the sweat, tears, and blood of physical, human labor.  And every single day God does it again and again and again.  This is why we need to hear this story.

My wife Kristen recently posted a meme that she created on her Facebook page, which has been shared around quite a bit.  In it she quotes the great 16th century mystic San Juan de la Cruz—Saint John of the Cross.  Here is what she posted:

If you want.  If we want.  If we want to see her we need not look far.  If we want to be the ones to help Jesus be born into this messy and often ugly world of ours, the opportunities are around us.  I’ll share one with you that happened recently.  Operation Red Sleigh is an event in our area that feeds hundreds of families each year and provides Christmas presents to kids who might otherwise never be afforded one.  For one magical Saturday morning, Santa shows up, hot meals are served, laughter and lively conversation fill the gym at Central United Methodist Church here in Asheboro, and Christmas comes a little early.  This year I was handling the drink distribution when another of our Good Shepherd folks brought over a woman who asked to speak to a pastor.  It was clear that hard times had fallen on her.  She had three boys, and a fourth one was only a few days away from being brought into the world.  Four children, little money, little care.  She asked me to pray for her and her family and include her on our prayer list at our church.  We prayed, and she headed on her way.  The following week I got a call from a name I didn't immediately recognize.  It was this same mother.  She was calling to give me an update on her family.  The news wasn’t good, but then her tone changed.  “The whole time we were talking,” she said, “I could have sworn I knew who you were.  And then it hit me.  Three years ago you and your church put me and my kids up in a motel for a few days.  You didn’t know it, but y’all saved us.  That got us out of an bad situation and bought us enough time for another church to help set us up with the house that we’re currently living in.  Y’all are my guardian angels.”  That, brothers and sisters, is the very kind of moment of which San Juan de la Cruz spoke.  A mother in need, seeking shelter for her children.  Sound familiar?  If you want, the virgin will come to you, too.

Another great author, mystic, and theologian, Thomas Merton, once wrote: “Though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes, yet with all that, God glorified Godself in becoming a member of the human race.” Merton knew that God’s coming into this world meant something particularly significant: that everything, every single piece of creation, in all of its messiness, especially our own often flawed and broken human condition, had been redeemed by the physical presence of the very One who gave breath to it all in the first place.   The Incarnation wasn’t neat and tidy, like so many Renaissance paintings depict it.  It was raw, chaotic, and more than a little disheveled.  In other words, Jesus' birth was just like ours.  It serves as a reminder to us that God is more often found in the mess than in the tidiness.  Our mess. A holy mess.  That’s the Incarnation.

And it happens every day of our lives.  We may wish to escape the pain and the mess at times, but God still comes to us.  We may wish we had more time to make our house look pretty, but God still shows up, often unannounced. And like Mary the Theotokos, who brought God into the world through her own sweat, blood, and tears, the bearers of Christ are still out there, still coming to us, still asking that we be the ones to open the doors of our hearts to let Love in, whether at a community meal, at the door of a church, or in a detention center at the border.   Look for the woman in need, you’ll find Mother Mary.  Look for the messy people and places, and you’ll find Jesus.  And when, like the shepherds, you leave the safety and comfort of your flocks to step into that mess, you’ll never be the same again.  Merry Christmas!