Christmas Day (A): There’s Nothing About Mary
By: The Rev. Ann Dieterle
In my tradition, Christmas Eve is the big celebration of the season. We pull out all the liturgical stops: the choir has been working for months in preparation for it; those who decorate the space have gone above and beyond yet again in order to make the sanctuary beautiful; and of course the attendance swells. The Revised Common Lectionary gives several options to use for the Gospel, but most Episcopal congregations use the nativity story from Luke for this occasion. We travel to that little town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve and wonder at the shepherds and the stable and of course the infant Jesus and his mother. Sorry Joseph.
John’s gospel is reserved for Christmas morning and the Sunday after Christmas—when it’s virtually an act of heroism that the poor organist and worship assistants have made it to the service. Maybe a few choir members have joined the instrumentalist and the faithful few who are in the pews whenever the church doors are open, along with the good folk who just don’t like to drive at night anymore. The priest or pastor is running on fumes—just one more hour and a few hymns away from being able to collapse for a couple of days!
It’s a shame really that this beautiful poetry is relegated to several of the more sparsely attended services of the year.
When I preach this text I often focus on the theme of light. It seems appropriate in a season where the nights are long and it’s dark for many people both when they leave their homes and when they return after the workday. And speaking of darkness, as I write this, we are several days away from a Presidential election that is the nastiest of my lifetime. That’s saying something given that I’ve always thought politics was rather ugly. And I lived in Tallahassee, Florida during the 2000 election. The better angels of our nature seem to have given way to our baser instincts these days. Perhaps dwelling on an election that (hopefully) will be over and done with isn’t the track to take for a Christmas sermon. And yet, the living word of God touches us in our own time and place.
Tying that to the hope that we have in Christ that we are delivered from the darkness might be the Christmas message we need. And to know that even when it seems that all evidence points to the contrary, God hasn’t given up on this world. Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word for light, phos, also means radiance, or the source of spiritual light. Maybe it’s just me but I need daily reminders that there is one true light. Because the truth is sometimes I rely on my own powers to be that source of spiritual light and radiance. And sometimes we give that power to other people or things that aren’t deserving of it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him. We prize logic and reason. We find that here in the logos of Christ too, of course. But I can’t help but wonder if we have lost some of the beauty of this particular paragraph to an overly pragmatic sensibility. Or if we’ve lost sight of the mystery of it. This is poetry, not prose. It is not written as a mathematical formula or as a program. Or even as some kind of exchange in which you can prove that you are saved. (Receive Christ = I get to go to heaven when I die). It seems unlikely that the Evangelist could imagine this work being preserved for a couple of thousand years and beyond to be read across the world. It is meant to tell the story of Jesus for a particular community. Imagine that you are living in the year 90-100. You are 60 to 70 years removed from Jesus’ death. The Temple is destroyed and the people that you have worshipped with in the synagogue (you are a Jew but part of the Nazarene sect, one who believes that Jesus was the Messiah) are starting to kick you out. Persecution is a real possibility if not a reality for you. You really expected Jesus’ return by now. You’re not sure what it means to live in this time and place of waiting and struggling and persecutions.
And these words come to you…
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
It seems increasingly important that we remind ourselves how incredibly different the social and political reality was for Jesus’ first followers than it is for us. Whether or not the people in your pews have been irritated by Starbucks’ generic green holiday cups or are insulted that salespeople have wished them Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, we are likely still blind to the fact that we live in a world where our religion is still preferred and enjoys many privileges. It is easy to forget that the message of Jesus comes to those who are given neither religious preference nor privilege. Quite the opposite in fact. Maybe this type of reminder is too heavy handed for Christmas. A gentle way to do this could be to point out that the community John is writing to probably only had this gospel as their guide. They knew nothing of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. What might it mean that the introduction to Jesus doesn’t include a nativity story? Does it change things that there’s no Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mother is never named in John’s gospel) and no shepherds or wise men? How would we celebrate differently if John’s gospel was the only one that we had access to, and we represented a very small, cult-like religious sect, rather than a major world religion? How would we live differently?
The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, nestled in the foothills between the Brushy and Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born on Long Island (be sure to stress the “g”) but grew up in Florida. Since going to Sewanee for seminary she’s lived in Virginia twice and the Chicago area so she is a little bit southerner and a little bit yankee. She is a lover of the outdoors, baseball (Cubs win!), reading, and cooking. Her dog Gordon is cuter than your pet.