Sunday, December 26, 2010

Looking closely at Christmas

First Sunday after Christmas, December 26, 2010
John 1:1-18

Have you ever looked at a flower? What do you see? Maybe beautiful color, the shape of the leaves, the way the petals are constructed. Maybe you look at a flower in terms of where it fits, or the color of the outfit or the décor it will decorate. But there is more to the flower. We just need to see it differently. The theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, who worked on both the Manhattan Project and served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster, said her looked at flowers differently.

Once, during a TV interview, Feynman held up a flower. He commented that his artist-friend had said how wonderful it was that everyone could see its beauty, that no specialized knowledge was necessary to appreciate the wonder of the flower.

Feynman agreed that this was partially true, everyone could look at the flower and see it; but as a scientist, he was able to “see” much more of the flower than most of us. He could see the beauty of the cells working together to support life; the mystery of the flower’s color, locked in its cells, that attracted insects; which, in turn, would lead him to wonder about the insect’s perception of color. In short, Feynman “saw” much more in that flower in a few minutes that most of us would see in a lifetime of looking.

We need to look at Christmas as closely as Feynman looks at the flower. Like Feynman, we can look into the holiday and see what many people miss: the mystery of the Incarnation. We have an additional, different task: having seen what others missed, we must tell what we have seen and heard.

The snowstorm today may change this, but I’ll bet you a cup of Bishop’s Blend that this week’s trash pick-up will be littered with discarded Christmas trees. Today, the world around us has moved on. Christmas Day is nice, but that was yesterday.

But we Christians have another eleven days to ponder the mystery of the season. Sure the relatives and friends may still be around for another day or two, or maybe having spent Christmas with one set of parents, we will be off to spend New Years with another, but on the whole, society will move into white sales and is getting ready for New Years Eve and the Bowl games. This gives us space to ponder Christmas more deeply. Now that we are free of the commercial sides of the cultures holiday, we can go deeper. Now we can “see” Christmas in new, deeper ways.

This first half of the first chapter of the Gospel of John is the perfect place to start. It invites us to look at the Incarnation in the same way that Richard Feynman looked at the flower. The prologue to John’s gospel is the same Gospel lesson for Christmas Day and the Sunday following Christmas. So we’ve been given the chance to marinate in the words a bit. We love the beauty of the words and even if they are a mystery to us they become part of us.

The prologue from John sets the tone for the whole Gospel; if you want to know the point of the Gospel of John, it’s in verse 18: “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.”

As I’ve said, only Matthew and Luke have nativity stories. So there are no animals in this Gospel. No manger, no shepherds and in John’s Gospel there no angels until the empty tomb. What we do have is not a story, but a hymn, a poem. This is a hymn to Christ, maybe one of the earliest hymns in the Church. And it is a love song, full of increasing light, celebrating the relationship between God and God’s only Son and then extending that intimate relationship to embrace all humanity. This hymn speaks of the one who comes to us in power to make all things new for us who have been up until now exiled and the inhabitants of darkness.

For many of us Christmas is only about the baby. But look at this Christmas flower more deeply. See John’s hymn of the Incarnation. Look deeply into what God is doing and appreciate the mystery.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the baby whose birth we celebrate is also the Risen Christ. That means that the baby we celebrate is also the crucified Christ. To separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the crucifixion is to engage in a kind of denial. We like to welcome, cuddle and make silly faces at little babies. But Jesus’ birth reminds us that Jesus is the one who is not received. Luke tells us Jesus was born in a manger, maybe a cave, not only because there was no room in the inn, but perhaps because there was no room in the hearts of any of Joseph’s family for him and his pregnant girlfriend. Matthew’s story reminds us that the very people who hoped for God’s messiah would not receive him when they finally got the one for whom they hoped. Jesus and his family would become refugees instead. John tells us that Jesus was not recognized and he was rejected. The Nativity reminds us that when God came to us, he came as one who is weak and vulnerable, not just as the holy infant, but also as the adult who was sent to the cross and executed.

But Jesus, the weak, flesh-and-bone Christ, has real power. It is not the world’s power; it is not the power to conquer or be prosperous. Jesus’ power transforms us into the people God made us to be. Jesus’ power is to smother sin with love, to overcome fear with hope, to give us the tools and the power to choose faith. Jesus’ power transforms our vision so that we see us and all creation as God does—something lovely, something worth living, as people worth dying for.

Most people think that’s naïve and silly. They reject that kind of power. But Jesus, the rejected yet powerful one, comes full of grace and truth, which means that each Christmas we are presented us with a choice. We can be transformed by the power of the gospel to be God’s people, walking in God’s vulnerable ways. Or we can reject him and continue business as usual. Business as usual means sitting in the darkness, shielding our eyes, and turning away from the life-giving light. The story around which we gather today is one of transforming hope for a new life. We are invited to cooperate with God’s divine initiative, to allow God’s light to help us see the path more clearly, to make a new beginning as God’s people. Where that happens, heaven and earth do sing, there is joy to the world, and the waste places do break forth together in singing.

The Church gives us not one day, but twelve, to celebrate and look deeply into the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. If you have ever dreamed of a Christmas free of all the cultural trappings and commercial distractions that have surrounded us since August, here’s your chance. We can be like the physicist Feynman. We are called to ponder the mystery. Bask in the hope. Live the wonder. Tell the story. Because God does not abandon us like trees on the first trash day after Christmas. God is with us. Right now. Right here. The divinely naïve, lovingly risk-taking God of power and transformation has come to humanity. And we are changed.

See Also: Christmas Vigil and 2nd Sunday after Christmas

No comments: