The Word Made Flesh
Christmas Day: 25th December, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Isaiah 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb. 1:1-6; John 1: 1-5 & 9-14
"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." (John 1:1, 14)
Each year the Christmas story runs the risk of contracting terminal niceness. It certainly is a nice story. It is the Meyers window at the end to which nobody goes. It is the tale of the cute baby Jesus that most have heard of, but equally most think that they have grown out of. Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, puts it this way (The Little Book of Advent, ed. A. Howells [William Collins, 2015] p. 98):
The Christmas story could be told simply with a happy ending ... 'Shepherds are cold, shepherds see angels, shepherds head into town and see baby, and shepherds disappear into sunrise, happy.'
If we ended there, Christmas removes us from reality. Christmas becomes something utterly remote, about lives entirely different, fictional, naïve, tidy. That's not Christmas. Jesus came to the reality of this world to transform that reality — not to take us into some fantasy kind of 'happy ever after' but to bring 'good news of great joy for all people.'
The truth of the Incarnation is so much more than a nice story. Again, Archbishop Welby writes (p. 100): "because Jesus comes as a child, as a baby, we are not manipulated or forced, we have freedom to choose whether we hear his story properly or not. This baby is love so fierce it changes universes, love so gentle that the weakest is free to choose." This is not terminal niceness; this is a searing reality that has the potential to transform lives, families, churches, communities, cities, even the world.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Words are powerful. In the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, God speaks all things into existence. Our words too can create something from nothing. We can brainstorm an idea into a vision that can be shared; we can then write reports and business plans, call meetings; we use words to turn these ideas into reality. The things that shape our lives, from the microchip to the skyscraper, have their origin in words.
Our words can bring about great good, but they can also do great harm. Think of the internal scripts that we each carry around; those careless or harsh words from a parent or a bully or a relationship that's failing. Therapists make their living helping us find healing after such words have torn into our psyche and embedded themselves deep within.
Have you seen the film "Doubt"? It is based on a 2004 play by John Patrick Shanley? Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic (if flawed) priest, Fr Flynn. In one of his sermons Fr Flynn tells a tale about the power of words:
A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew — I know none of you have ever done this — that night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O'Rourke, and she told him the whole thing.
'Is gossiping a sin?' she asked the old man. 'Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I be asking your absolution? Father, tell me, have I done something wrong?'
'Yes!' Father O'Rourke answered her. 'Yes ... you have borne false witness against your neighbour, you have played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed!'
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
'Not so fast!' says O'Rourke. 'I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me!'
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to the roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
'Did you gut the pillow with the knife?' he says.
'And what was the result?'
'Feathers,' she said.
'Feathers?' he repeated.
'Feathers everywhere, Father!'
'Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!'
'Well,' she said, 'it can't be done. I don't know where they went. The wind took them all over.'
'And that,' said Father O'Rourke, 'is GOSSIP!'
I am not pointing the finger here. It's true what they say, when you point the finger at someone, three point back. It is the human condition to sin, and I am far from perfect just as, no doubt, you all are. Before I celebrate the Mass, I am very conscious of my prayer of preparation: "wash away my iniquity, O Lord, and cleanse me from my sin." I am not pointing the finger, but I am acknowledging the power of our words to destroy as much as to build up.
It is the duality of our words, the unreliability of our lives, our clay feet; this painful reality is what the great mystery of the Incarnation speaks directly into.
"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."
Our words are powerful, but the divine Word is all power, from the beginning of time. And yet this divine Word comes not in an act of war, or revenge, or brilliance, or dominance; the all powerful divine Word comes to us in the vulnerable, born on the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, refugee Christ-child. This is the power of love that speaks into our lives. This is the profound truth of the Incarnation; the truth that transforms.
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople in his oration On the Nativity of Christ has this to say:
This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate ... in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God. Or return — for to speak thus is more correct — that laying aside the old human being, we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died, so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him. For it is necessary to me to undergo the good turn-around.
Journey toward God; return to God; undergoing the good turn-around. This is the Christmas message; not terminally nice, but painfully true. The Word became flesh, so that we can turn around and return to God.
And what might this "good turn-around" look like for you and for me this Christmas morning? It might be deeply personal; we may be asking God to help us transform things that have gone wrong in our lives. It might be an issue in our family, or with a partner or close friend. Or our good-turnaround might be a much wider issue; committing ourselves in 2016 to work to transform homelessness, or the plight of refugees, or climate change, or family violence. I can't answer that for you; but God can. The key thing this Christmas morning is that you and I open our hearts this day to the truth of the divine Word made flesh.
The Lord be with you; and also with you.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.