The First Sunday After Christmas
On this first Sunday after Christmas we hear a very different Gospel from what was read on Christmas Eve. There is no mention of Mary or Joseph or Shepherds or Angels. No, today we hear the majestic lines of the very beginning of the Gospel of John who reminds us that “In the beginning was the Word…”
It is our call to recognize that Jesus was with God from the very beginning and that all things came into being through him. That was his glory, says John, that on a starlit night in a fixed time and place in human history God slipped in among us, assumed flesh and was born right in our midst. God in the flesh became for all time to come God-with us. Since we probably think of God as the direct opposite of flesh, that was a strange yet wonderful thing for God to do. We may even associate carnal things as being the farthest from heavenly and believe that we are being most Godly when we are living in the realm of the spiritual and bodiless.
But Christmas says “no,” that is not necessarily so. The manger and a baby’s birth, the Word made flesh says “no,” you are wrong on that score. You can’t come to be with God but God can and will come to be with you. And that is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to understand about Christmas. It does not just celebrate the nativity of a savior. It celebrates an incarnation—the on-going process of salvation—not just the one-time historical event in Bethlehem. Christmas is not just a birthday but the astonishing event of God’s entering the world so deeply and completely that nothing has been the same ever since. And because of that, people still see the dawn of the Light of the world even in the darkest of times.
Inspirational author Charlene Elizabeth Fairchild wrote about one of those times in her memoir, “A Mustard Seed Christmas.” She wrote, “Last year our first Christmas decoration was a mustard seed. A lowly mustard seed. Taped on a sheet of while paper to the center of our mantelpiece. It was a sign and a symbol of the fragile hope I had of celebrating Christmas. Mom had died on Labor Day and this was the first Christmas without her. I did not “feel” like Christmas. Despite my fog of misery, I knew that I was being self-absorbed in my pain.
“Life was going on all about me but, for the life off me, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get through this time. Everybody busy and happy and having parties, I shrank inside. What was I going to do…It was beyond me to rejoice. As I said these things to my husband, he reminded me that God IS able even if I was not. He mentioned the parable of the mustard seed. God could take that little mustard seed and make of it something worthy. God could take that tiny seed of faith and grow it into a kingdom of hope.
I got up and went to the kitchen and rifled through my spices. Yes! There it was. My bottle of mustard seeds. I got one out and grabbed a piece of paper from the pad by the phone and taped that mustard seed to the center. I returned to the dining room waving the paper triumphantly…’I CAN celebrate this year.’ My husband said, ‘Here, let’s put it on the mantel. It will be our first Christmas decoration.’ Up it went. Every time I looked at it, I was reminded of the hope it symbolized and the faith it embodied. I couldn’t do it on my own. But God could. And God did!”
The great theologian Karl Barth said that the birth in Bethlehem implies that “God makes room for himself among us.” God enters in among us without our work. The incarnation is a miracle that signifies God’s determination to be with us. God didn’t just come close to being human, didn’t just seem almost human, God became a real person with a face and a personality and a heart and a name. And we are not angels, floating ten feet above the ground. Each of us has a street address where God can find us. We have bodies with ten fingers and ten toes, two eyes and two ears and a nose, so we can’t escape or elude God by dematerializing anytime we want. And right there, where we are, as we are, that’s where God gets us. So if you want to meet God, you’ll need to do that in the flesh because God continues to take on flesh in our midst, in the women and men and children who form God’s body today here.
Soon we will be putting away all the signs of yet another Christmas: the wreath and the holly and the tree and the ornaments. We will wrap up the figures in the crèche and with them we will retire for another year the Christmas story. If it is to have made any impression on us, we must continue to look for the Christ—not just in clean, warm places like the church or the verses in the sentimental Christmas cards we received, but in the stable, in places were life is often messy. Michel Quoist, an author of spiritual books who was very popular when I was a “baby” priest, offers this dramatic expression of such a reality:
“I am not made of plaster, nor of stone, nor of bronze. I am living flesh, throbbing, suffering. I am among women and men and they have not recognized me. I am poorly paid. I live in a slum. I am sick, I sleep under bridges, I am in prison. I am oppressed. I am patronized. I sweat blood on all battlefields. I cry out in the night and die in the solitude of battle. And yet I said to them, “Whatever you do to my brothers or sisters, however humble, you do to me.”
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”