December 31, First Sunday after Christmas

The First Sunday After Christmas – December 31, 2017

John 1: 1-18

A sermon preached by Debbie Buesing

St. Augustine’s, Wilmette

It is the seventh day of Christmas. In my house, the Magi and their camels have crept halfway around my living room, on their way to meet the Christ Child on top of my piano. Outside, Christmas trees have been stripped of their finery and set out curbside to await the chipper, around the same time the “holiday music,” that has been in non-stop rotation on WLIT-FM since early November, went silent. But here in the Church, we still sing Christmas carols. The green wreaths and red bows are still here, as are the festive vestments on our clergy and the altar. While the world’s attention moves on to the next thing, here we linger over Christmas just a little longer, with today’s lectionary reading presenting that most mysterious of Christmas stories, from the Gospel According to John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. These words seem far from the beloved mashup of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels that we know so well from nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. Today we do not hear of angelic messengers, long journeys, strange visitors, or of a poor and no doubt frightened young couple who dared to say YES to a call that must have seemed impossible. The writer of John’s Gospel takes the Christmas narrative away from first century Palestine, across the boundaries of place and time, to proclaim the One who existed before time itself.

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 … and the Word was made flesh, and lived among us.

To me, the words that introduce John’s gospel are sheer poetry, with their echoes of Genesis and the way they surround its mysterious story with imagery and cadence. I find echoes of John’s words in a modern poem, aptly titled “Christmas,” by English poet John Betjeman, in which he struggles to make meaning of that same mystery.

He opens the poem with several verses describing a walk through his village in the days before Christmas, with its elegant manor houses decked out in greenery, the more modest homes with cutout decorations in the windows, and of course, the pretty church in the center. It may be mid-century England, but he could just as easily be describing Wilmette. But suddenly, in the midst of all that sweetness and nostalgia, a troubling question breaks through to the surface:

 “And is it true?” he asks.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

In the beginning was the Maker of the stars and sea. The Maker of the stars and sea became flesh, and lived among us. This is the story behind the more familiar stories of shepherds abiding in the fields, of wise men following a star to find a baby in an ox’s stall.

The baby part of the story is easy. We like babies. We gather around the font to bless them and welcome them into their new family. We pass them around at coffee hour for snuggles.

It is the Incarnation – literally, the taking on of flesh and muscle and bone – by the Maker of the stars and sea, that gives us pause. It is so staggering a claim that we can, I believe, be forgiven if we too ask, “And is it true?”  -- even when the question comes to us when we don’t want or expect it.

In the town of Bethlehem – which isn’t so little anymore – the Church of the Nativity, which dates to the fourth century, sits on top of a hill, in an open plaza they call Manger Square. Inside the church, there is a hole in the floor above a grotto that the faithful believe is the place Mary and Joseph sought shelter to bring the infant Jesus into the world.

Surrounding the hole in the floor is a large, fourteen-pointed silver star, about 36” across. The fourteen star-points represent the fourteen generations between Jesus and King David, as reported in the Gospel According to Matthew. Pilgrims come here to pray and to reach their hands into that hole in the floor, to touch the sacred space.

When my turn came, I knelt by the star and was suddenly overwhelmed by uninvited questions. Was this really the place? How do they know? Was it maybe down the hill, closer to the shepherd’s fields? Or was it really in Nazareth, like some scholars say? I found myself afraid to reach into the opening, so I just kissed my fingertips and pressed them into the star points. I couldn’t find words to pray. So I just rested in the mystery for a few moments, while sixteen centuries of prayers hung in the air like incense.

And is it true? And if we ask ourselves this, do we dare to ask the next question –

What if it is?

To return to the last part of Betjeman’s poem:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Now that the busy-ness and stress of Christmas preparations are behind us, it is good for us to linger a bit longer with this mysterious “single truth.” To consider, perhaps, that the most tender aspects of our celebrations – whether in recent days or in years gone by – are simply an echo of a greater tenderness. The awkwardness of the well-intended gift that misses the mark but is graciously received (I mean, who among us hasn’t had their own “hideous tie” moment?); or loneliness relieved by a surprise Christmas phone call; or the grace that happens in our own families – families of origin or families of choice – when folks travel across town or across the country to set aside present differences or past disappointments, just to sit down at table together and remember who we are: these joys that we can understand point us towards something that perhaps we cannot: the love that burst through space and time to take on human flesh and walk with us.

The Maker of the stars and sea was made flesh, and dwells among us. This is a mystery, but it is also Good News. May we embrace this truth, and carry it out into the New Year, with joy.

“Christmas” by John Betjeman (1906-1984), published in John Betjeman: Collected Poem