There is really nothing more I think I could say about the “Word of God” spoken of in the prologue to John’s gospel. Anything that can be said has already been said by others far wiser and more learned than me–there’s an entire Beatles song to that effect. I sought for something to say about any of the other lectionary texts for this Sunday, but I could not stop hearing this gospel text multiple times throughout my day. Literally. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and candidate for one of Georgia’s senate seats, quotes John 1:5 in a prominent campaign ad. “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness overcometh it not.” As a resident of Georgia, I have seen this ad dozens of times (it’s just after Thanksgiving, so it will probably be hundreds by the time you read this in January). I don’t know if it’s just the repetition of that ad or because 2020 has felt like the avatar of “darkness,” but I’m finding a lot of comfort in considering Jesus as the light of the world.
“Light” becomes an important image throughout the fourth gospel. It’s used 21 times in John’s 21 chapters, and these few verses seem to set it up for the remainder of the book. The image of light, as much as the use of the term logos, serves to connect Jesus to the creation narrative. As Jesus is the Word which was active in creation and is the light of the world, he can be seen as the light that ordered the primordial chaos–light was the primary method that God used to order creation and its presence (day) or its absence (night) has always been the way people order and measure their lives.
Light is also revelatory. The light which shines in the darkness reveals all for what it is; nothing is hidden. It reveals reality and so is both liberating and disconcerting. It is embraced by those with the bravery to live truly, but is mostly hated by all of us who would rather hide parts of ourselves.
Light is a guide. It can be difficult for this image to land in a modern world of electricity and light pollution, but I often think of the times in my childhood when my family would drive out to Edisto Beach. The road was narrow and flanked by imposing oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The headlights of our car only illuminated so far, but that illumination was enough to keep us on the road and prevent us from colliding with those trees.
Conversely, “darkness” also becomes an important image in John. Darkness can be a lack of enlightenment–a stumbling in the dark–or it can be something that people actively engage with–one hides themselves or things that they don’t wish found in dark places. However, the most important attribute that darkness has is its complete inability to extinguish light–a candle left alone in a dark room will go out once it is burned to the nub, but the darkness itself is not a thing which has any power to act upon it.
The most important interpretive lens for the fourth gospel is the reality and experience of the resurrection. The gospel of John only makes sense in light of the resurrection. It begins with an affirmation that the resurrected Christ has always been–that Christ shares the essence of the Creator–and it ends with a witness to the continued life and activity of the resurrected Christ. The resurrection is a prism through which we can view the darkness of any present situation. Because of the resurrection we can be assured that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light. Because of the resurrection, Rev. Warnock can say that, in the midst of a global pandemic, there is hope.
Just because I was drawn to write about the image of light in John 1 doesn’t mean that others haven’t written more beautifully about it than I am able. And so, I close with this excerpt from Tolkien’s Return of the King in which Samwise, despairing and approaching resignation in a hostile land, sees a star through a break in the clouds.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Among the Gospel readings assigned for Christmas, my favorite has got to be the prologue to John’s Gospel. With its bold affirmation of the flesh, the prologue unmistakably rejects all those early Christian heresies that denied the full-body reality of Jesus Christ. The Word did not just appear to be flesh, it became flesh and lived among us, thus making it crystal clear that God loves physical matter: God made it, God became it, and God wants us to experience Him through it. Ever since William Temple declared that “the Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity, Anglican Johannine scholars have tended to emphasize this flesh-affirming character of John’s Gospel. As an Anglican priest who has published a book on John, I find myself standing in this lineage and eager to share the Gospel’s invitations to affirm the flesh as God’s preferred vehicle for His glory.
It was this affirmation of the flesh that surprised me most in studying the Johannine Jesus, whom one scholar famously described as a detached “god who glides across the face of the earth” and whom another scholar called a “stranger from heaven.” Although I wasn’t looking for it, I kept noticing how much John’s Jesus seems to love the world and take great delight in earthly pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding party in which the guests are already sufficiently drunk (2:10); his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well is charged with nuptial and even erotic overtones (4:1-42); he offends listeners with a description of the Bread of Life that is far too fleshy for their religious tastes (6:60-61); he makes healing ointment out of dirt and saliva (9:6); he receives an expensive and seemingly excessive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8); and he himself strips down to almost nothing to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1-11). This Johannine Jesus is no stranger to the world.
John’s prologue functions as a poetic prelude to the almost scandalous ways that Jesus delights in creation; and the prologue invites us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. On Christmas day, as we celebrate the Christ Mystery born of a woman’s body, John’s prologue reminds us to appreciate the gift of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression. One helpful way that John’s flesh-affirming prologue invites us to celebrate the Incarnation is by helping us to appreciate the gift of our five senses, which are all explicitly referenced in the Gospel’s subsequent narrative. When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he invites us to appreciate the gift of audition by teaching the Pharisee about the spiritual significance of simply listening to the wind (3:8). The gift of taste is underscored when Jesus quenches the Samaritan woman’s deepest thirst (4:14). In the healing of the man born blind, we learn to appreciate the gift of vision by seeing God’s healing power at work in the messy muddiness of our lives (9:6). The gift of olfaction is highlighted as Jesus invites Martha and Mary to smell the subtle hints of resurrection in the midst of death (John 11:39); and Jesus emphasizes the gift of touch in his beautiful and enigmatic exchanges with Mary Magdalene and Thomas (John 20:17, 27). Throughout the Fourth Gospel, the Word Made Flesh invites us to be refreshed by the gift of our own flesh, our own temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), specifically by appreciating our five senses.
Another way the Word Made Flesh offers refreshment is by inviting us to rest. The Word who was with God at the beginning of creation knows the crucial importance of Sabbath rest (Genesis 2:2). So, it is no surprise that Christ urges his disciples and us to rest and abide in him (15:4, 7), to honor our flesh by giving it proper time to rest. This might be the Gospel’s most helpful piece of advice on Christmas Day for preachers and parishioners, who are likely exhausted after a busy and demanding Advent season, especially during a pandemic.
Traditionally, the author of the prologue is St. John the Evangelist, whose feast day happens to be celebrated on the third day of Christmas (Dec 27). Identified as the “Beloved Disciple,” St. John exemplifies perfect rest when he reclines next to Jesus during their last evening together (13:23). According to the Celtic Christians, St. John was resting upon the bosom of Christ and listening to his heartbeat. On Christmas day, when Episcopalians pray to be “renewed by the Holy Spirit,” may we all be refreshed by deepening our appreciation for our five senses and by resting and abiding in Christ, whose heart continues to beat in our own holy flesh.
 William Temple, Nature, Man and God: Gifford Lectures, Lecture XIX: “The Sacramental Universe” (London: Macmillan), 478; as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130. Anglican Johannine scholars who have emphasized the flesh-affirming character of the Fourth Gospel include John A. T. Robinson, Richard Bauckham, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Dorothy Lee.
 Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: According to John 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 75. Marinus de Jonge, Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1971).
 I am indebted to Dorothy Lee, whose scholarship on John and the five senses have helped me to see the many ways that the Gospel affirms the flesh. See Dorothy Lee, “The Gospel of John and the Five Senses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (Spring 2010). Also see Dorothy Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York: Herder & Herder, 2002).
 During Lent (Year A), the Revised Common Lectionary assigns the above readings from John’s Gospel on Sundays, referencing the gifts of audition (3:1-17), taste (4:5-42), vision (9:1-41), and olfaction (11:1-45), while the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday references touch (20:1-18). Inspired by Dorothy Lee’s work, I have offered Lenten retreats, workshops, and a sermon series on “Experiencing the Fourth Gospel Through the Five Senses.”
 See J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1997). Also see Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.25 in which “the blessed evangelist John” is described as “worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord.”
There is a lot to take in in these 18 verses. A beautiful sermon could be preached about the importance of ritual and custom in Jesus’ family, naming the absolute confirmation of each temple law regarding a first-born son. This reality serves to substantiate Jesus as a reformer within the Hebrew faith rather than an instigator from outside the covenant and lineage. Jesus is a righteous child in a righteous family being prepared to be the restoration of righteousness in Israel and beyond Israel.
What really stands out to me as significant to me as I sit with the text are the two interactions with the elders, Simeon and Anna. Each of these town elders embody the depth of wisdom that only comes at the end of a long life spent with God. They have attuned their hearts and minds so closely to God’s vision that their first instinctual response to seeing the infant Jesus in Mary’s arms was to break into song (Simeon) and begin sharing the good news of God’s promise fulfilled (Anna).
The wisdom they have is innocent and foolish while also being so honest and heavy. Simeon seems to grab Jesus out of Mary’s hands with joy in order to marvel at the infant child who he recognizes to be the salvation of the whole world: “a light of revelation for the gentiles and a glory for all [God’s] people, Israel.” And from that place of utter joy and anticipation, he indicates the implications of Jesus’ presence. He will cause the “falling and rising of many… He will be a sign that generates opposition… a sword will pierce your soul.”
Salvation, falling & rising, opposition, a pierced soul. The ramifications of Christ’s presence in and through the infant child, Jesus are life changing. They are world changing. Christ’s birth to a family unable to make the preferred animal sacrifice on behalf of their firstborn child (Lev.12:8), in the context of a roman occupation which many religious folks had grown accustomed to would inevitably lead to a profound upending of society.
The news is good for people who are devoted to righteousness and faith despite the circumstances. The news is painful for people devoted to the circumstances despite their inherited faith.
That reality is as true for us today as it was in the first century. In God’s Kingdom envisioned by the prophets from Amos through to Anna, there will be people who fall from their pedestals and there will be people who are elevated. There will be people who claim faith in God who oppose the will of God. There will be people who bear the presence of Christ into the world who will have their heart pierced as they watch crowds turn against them because of an institutional call for order, unity, and tradition.
There is so much to celebrate and there is so much to mourn. This is why my heart is drawn towards the deep sage-like joy that Simeon and Anna have. They know what is coming. They know how hard it will be. They know what trusting Christ will mean for their community. They know the pain that will come, and yet they celebrate, they give praise, they offer blessing, Anna spreads the good news, and Simeon submits his life to God– Trusting that God will fulfill all of the promises made, even if it is hard for some of us to stomach.
What are the things that need to fall in your church? What are the things that need to be elevated? What is God calling your church towards that will inevitably be painful? How might you help people see a vision beyond themselves?
How do we celebrate Christmas in the year 2020, this “unprecedented,” “undefinable”, “apocalyptic” and dumpster-fire-meme-inducing year?
How do we preach “good news” in this year that has overwhelmed and exhausted us with ongoing disaster after disaster, tragedy after tragedy, and incalculable death and loss? How do we fill our people with the light of love, hope, joy, and peace when it feels like this year has held anything but? No matter what, we can’t “pretty up” Christmas this year. There’s no way to pretend that anything is normal, or that even keeping it quiet and simple will be anything but a shadow of celebrations before. Instead of the wonder and cheer of previous years, this year Christmas just feels a little too risky. But what if that right there, that notion that Christmas is a little bit daring, perilous, precarious … what if that is the good news?
We’ve heard the story so many times before that it’s become comfortably familiar, like the warm Christmas sweater we snuggle into this time of year. The tender glow of nostalgia paints a comfortable, welcoming picture into which we can almost place ourselves: we bask in the humid warmth of the cozy, wooden stable; we smell the sweet hay; we hear the melody of the animals – the treble baaing of the sheep, the bass of the cow’s low, the rustle of the hay crackling at our feet. We savor the honeyed aroma of contentment and peace. With Mary, we ponder the perfection of this moment heralded by the angels. Peace, good will, and joy to all! This is the magical moment when we hear that all is right with the world, the perfect birth story of God’s own perfection incarnate in the sweet, snuggly Baby Jesus. The story is so familiar that we let its nostalgia mask the scandal.
My favorite Nativity icon is this Orthodox scene.
What I love about this icon is its starkness in comparison to other Nativity images, its reality, its daring. A cold, bleak cave replaces the cozy stable scene. Joseph, outside the entrance, ostensibly keeping watch, listens to a hooded, shadowy figure that represents the Adversary whispering “what if?” into his ear. What if it’s all a lie, a dream? What if, because we all know virgin birth is impossible, Mary has been playing him the fool? We see the conflict in Joseph’s brooding posture. Inside, Mary reclines in a pool of red –the residue, perhaps, of a labored birth process? What would it be like to give birth in a cramped, hard, uncomfortable and inhospitable space with no soft place to land? And the baby, instead of cozily snuggled in Mary’s arms, lays not amidst warm crackling straw, but in a stone box that looks less a feeding trough and more an ossuary swaddled tightly in bands of cloth, set deep back in a crack or niche in the wall of the cave….remarkably similar to the family tombs that dotting the Bethlehem hillside. And the gifts the magi will bring include the embalming herb, myrrh. Jesus is hunted as a rival by a jealous Herod. Even at his birth, the gospelers foreshadow Jesus’s death. Jesus is not safe.
Preacher David Schlafer writes that Christmas is about the “birth of the unexpected in the most unlikely of circumstances.” Over the years, we have heard the story so many times it has lost its edge. Christmas has become wrapped in the glow of nostalgia. We forget that Christ came into a politically dangerous world where Rome oppressed Judea with military dominance and heavy taxation. We forget that Christ came to a rigid world much like ours, where the religious and social class structure were unyielding, where the sick and outcast and foreigner were synonymous with the unclean or immoral. We forget that Mary and Joseph were “nobodies,” completely ordinary working-class people who lived in a backwater town in a backwater province of the Empire.
Such a dangerous, difficult world isn’t hard for us to imagine. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like our everyday reality. Jobs to do, taxes to pay, life marching onward against the backdrop of the empire’s power struggles and economic domination. These are not the things we want to focus on at Christmas…and so we settle for the comfortable fairytale, the illusion of peace and contentment wrapped in cheery paper at the foot of the evergreen tree; we hold to the familiar nostalgia of sweet baby Jesus, unassuming and unthreatening, simply there in perfect simplicity. Warm, snuggly, safe. But there is nothing about Jesus that is safe.
This icon reminds us that at the scene of his birth all is not cozy. And yet the good news of salvation, Schlafer notes, is that “the incarnation of God comes in the form of an illegitimate child; the birth announcements come to lowlife shepherds and pagan foreigners… God did not choose to come to earth at the highest point of life, but at its lowest point. God did not choose to enter the safe world of decorated churches and hallowed sanctuaries; instead God chose to enter the rough and tumble world of people with jobs to do, fields to tend, and government breathing down their necks at tax time.” Christ, the Savior, is born unexpectedly in in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Little wonder, then, that the first words of good news, the Gospel, counsel us “Do not be afraid!” This icon resurrects the inherent risk, the precarious danger surrounding the birth of this child, and points us to the paradoxical “good” news present at the very inception of this particular Child’s life – Savior because of, and through, his own death, his own fully embodied gift of self-offering, self-emptying, unconditionally gracious Love that is the very nature of God. Christ comes amid the muck and mundanity of everyday life rife with what ifs, loneliness, conflict, pain, shadow, death and loss—if we but seek, accept, and trust the light and Life to all he brings.
And, of course, this icon is not all stark realism. Good news surrounds the core promise, and the whole of creation receives this Child who redeems the whole of God’s Creation. God comes first to shepherds, representing those who are poor, marginalized, outcast, lonely and alone. God invites and includes them first in the great joy for ALL people. God comes to pagan strangers and foreigners, depicted here in this icon as both bearded and unbearded, those who are older and those who are young. God comes to the women, two of whom are inevitably midwives (a subtle nod to Shiprah and Puah) who would absolutely have been present and, likely, members of Joseph’s own extended family (since they returned to that area for the Census). The star still shines, the animals keep watch.
The paradox, this dance “between” – good and evil, light and shadow, joy and despair, gift and loss – is the reality of our human existence. In that, 2020 is not really “unprecedented, not terribly unlike any other year. What makes us feel like Christmas is “special” in years past has little to do with the reality of God’s presence coming into the muck and mundanity, and instead has largely been driven by our nostalgia around traditions. That’s not to say Christmas celebrations are not worshipful or beautiful experiences of God’s presence. They are. But beauty and warmth and glowing light are not really what Christmas is, or ever has been, about.
Christmas is about what’s Real. No matter the circumstances of our lives, we can trust that God is present with us. And the first message of Christmas is “Do not be afraid.” In a world filled with things to fear, a world filled with war and violence and oppression and degradation, with sickness and poverty, and waste and disaster, into this world Christ is born and the good news of God’s overwhelming, unconditional Love breaks in. Love sets us free – free to embody the light and love of Christ that lifts people from bondage and captivity to fear. And what is more real, or terrifying, than offering our very selves to God (to do with as God will) and to each other?
So take a risk this year. Do not be afraid. This year, keep Christmas real. Keep it messy. Keep it with joy, hope, peace, and self-offering love. Keep it a little dangerous and terrifying and awesome. Because THAT is what Christmas is all about – shaking us out of our comfort zones to meet a God who discomfits and disquiets us with unconditional love and grace from his first coming to his coming again. For that, may we rejoice!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we embody care and concern for each person we encounter. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, enjoying fine food and whiskey, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
A lament for The Second Sunday after Christmas Day.:
Celebrant: Oh oft maligned and regularly forgotten Second Sunday after Christmas Day! Whereas the First Sunday after Christmas Day has a rotating cast of texts for each year of the cycle, never deigning to repeat a text in three years, you are constrained to the same four texts year in and year out!
Second Sunday after Christmas Day, rarely do we see you. You appear only if the First Sunday after Christmas Day visits the calendar on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th. Often you are dethroned by Epiphany or the First Sunday after the Epiphany!
Oh Second Sunday, on you the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t place such a heavy weight as an Old Testament or Psalm reading, instead letting you venture into the rarely explored realms of the Apocrypha, so valiant Priests and Preachers can spend time explaining to the faithful few parishioners who braved the post-holiday doldrums just exactly what the “Apocrypha” is (and why it might not be in their bibles).
The Methodist’s method includes dropping you completely from the Lectionary in the Book of Worship! The stalwartly traditional Episcopalians can’t make up their minds about you, dear Second Sunday after Christmas Day, for the Book of Common Prayer assigns to you the same text for all three years!
You, Second Sunday after Christmas Day, truly are the Gen-X of the lectionary.
All joking aside, the text from Jeremiah and the particular day it occupies in the liturgical calendar presents some difficulty when it comes to interpretation and preaching. The Old Testament text selected is joyful but found in the midst of some of Jeremiah’s more acerbic prophecy, stopping just short of a weeping and wailing Rachel refusing to be consoled in verse 15. The Interpreter’s Bible spends all of its time with this text (vv. 7-14) debating if Jeremiah even wrote the passage, without actually discussing the text itself. It seems like the Church/Revised Common Lectionary committee picked out one of Jeremiah’s most hopeful passages, hoping that no lector accidentally overshoots and crashes into verse 15 so we can all just keep the peaceful feeling of Christmas going for another week.
In spite of being consigned to a forgotten role, my now beloved Second Sunday after Christmas Day is probably one of the most real days in the Christian Calendar, exemplified by this prophetic word from Jeremiah. Often on a Sunday when there is snow on the ground but the roads are still passable, I look out at a diminished congregation. On those Sundays, many chose not to risk getting out in the ice and snow, and I wonder what makes some people willing to gather for worship on those days? I suspect that for many, it is because they are searching for something. All of us come (or came initially) to church because we are looking for something; something we can’t find anywhere else.
What is it that makes people come to church on January 5th knowing that some of the joy of Christmas will have evaporated into simultaneous exhaustion and relief knowing that they made it through another holiday season? Why do most churches get a bump in attendance after the new year? (Why do we go back to “normal attendance” in February?)
Jeremiah’s vision for the future in chapter 31:7-14 is compelling. It tells of a time that is coming when all will find themselves coming into a kingdom prepared for them by God, on straight and smooth paths leading to lush gardens. In this land there will be dancing, singing, and shouting. God will trade the people’s mourning for laughter, and their sadness for joy. Those who don’t have a place now; the blind, disabled, mothers, and those in labor, will have a place of honor in God’s gathering.
In a world that is constantly growing louder, busier, faster, and more overwhelming, the Church gets to be a counterpoint. The church has an opportunity to be a people and a place where you do not have to fight for a place or position, because in the gathering of God’s people our place is secure.
The pageantry of Christmas and Epiphany is beautiful, but it fades into the calendar and is overtaken by the dark and cold of winter and “normal” life. There is no candlelight illumined “Silent Night” in January, only a joyful promise from God of healing and dancing, sandwiched between anger (30:24) and Rachel’s weeping and wailing (31:15). How blessed is the community of Christ that we are called to live into this kingdom of healing, joy, and dancing. Be careful while extolling the ability of God to heal, don’t discount or make light of the pain and grief people carry into worship. Hope and healing don’t negate grief, oppression, and suffering; instead, they show us that while pain might be a part of our story, it is not the end of our story with God.
As people seek refuge from the wounds of disillusionment, discontent, exile, expectations, and oppression, the church gets to stand and say, “The Lord has saved!” (v. 7). There is a place of healing and abundance for the hurting, the exiled, the oppressed, the tear-filled, and grief stricken.
People show up on January 5th, make resolutions to go back to church, and continue to walk through the doors every Sunday because they are looking for a community of abundant healing and salvation. What will you and your congregation find on this the Second Sunday after Christmas Day?
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville UMC in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).
By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.
The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.
If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.
We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”
God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
Christmas is always such a strange holiday. And I don’t mean the way it has taken on a secular life of its own and become another occasion for buying and selling and overdoing almost everything in life. I mean the actual Christmas or nativity stories we get in the gospels are really strange. They have women young and old prophesying. They have young men dreaming dreams. They have the most glorious birth in human history being honored by common shepherds and livestock, and later on foreign magicians. They even feature a balance of life and death when one expands the scope into the passages commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
By far the strangest “nativity” story to me, though, has to be the one in John’s Gospel. It really begins at the beginning, emphasizing that the One coming in a particular way to dwell among us isn’t just a person like we think of people, much in the same way that Matthew and Luke go out of their way to show us that he isn’t a king or messiah just as we often think of kings and messiahs. He is the genesis of all people and indeed all things, manifest in a particularly acute way in the life of a Jewish teacher in the Ancient Roman Empire.
I have always been acutely drawn to the section that discusses the Word or Logos – the Divine Reason or Creative Principle. John’s nativity doesn’t just begin at Jesus’ birth. The “birth story” for John begins not just with a baby in a manger, but with the birth of all creation. In so doing this gospel shows us something extremely important and often neglected; each of us finds ourselves in Christ. More than that, we find the whole cosmos in Christ. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In Christ we find the people we love and the people we hate. We find the animals that charm and terrify us. We find the natural elements that nourish and control us. We find the tame and the wild. We find the lamb and the lion. It brings to mind Ephesians 1:23, where Christ is “all in all.” Or the end of the Book of Job, where God actually shows up and takes both Job and the reader on whirlwind tour of creation, showing that all things find meaning and belonging in the One in whom we live and move and have our being. This kind of spiritual connection with the rest of creation isn’t quite the hippie song it sounds like. It means we have a real, unbreakable connection with everything else in all of creation.
That is a truly tough lesson to digest. There are some people, animals, and things in creation I don’t ever want to see near me, much less be connected to in all of eternity. And brings a whole new light to the command to love our enemies. We have to. There’s no getting away from them if we are all really one in Christ. I have to confess I don’t always like how that makes me feel. As a queer person I don’t know that I want to be connected to those who have assaulted my community and will continue to do so. Then I remember that part of why my own oppressors have seen themselves as justified in their violence in the past is that they’ve been able to disassociate queer folks from the Christ to whom we have always belonged. So, I resist that same (admittedly satisfying) temptation in favor of the hard truth that will, in the end as in the beginning, set both sides free if we let it.
Our world specializes in breaking apart and destroying this unity which God ordained from the beginning by making all things and doing so through the Logos (or Cosmic Christ as Richard Rohr so often likes to say). Thinking of this Logos, this Word, this Spiritual Union of all created things as a light which cannot be overcome is a precious gift, especially when one considers the curses of human division and opposition in the world. It is all the more hopeful when one considers too the bitter harvest of climate change we are reaping for abusing the delicate balance of all creation. This bit of the Christmas story reminds us that we are all connected. It goes back to the beginning of all things and re-infuses our reality with Divinity from the first minute. It reassures us that no matter what bitter oppression or danger we face; Christ is present with us. And that is an incarnational theology which can bring some real hope to our often sterile, clinical, over monetized, hyper partisan, and bitter reality. What a gift indeed.
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.
I was seven when it was my turn. Seven, because my mama was the one who directed the Christmas pageant, and she let all the other girls my age take their turns first. So, I was seven when I finally got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant. To be fair, for a very long time my mom had to force me to participate in anything that had to do with being in front of church people because I was really shy. But being Mary was as magical as I imagined it would be—a light blue gown with gold thread trimming and a delicate white head scarf safety-pinned into place under my chin.
The story was very straightforward to me back then. The angel announced that Mary would have a son and that she would call him Jesus. Mary thought this was a great idea, and it was so. Blessed Mary—obedient, demure, and full of grace.
Several decades and some theological education later, I understand Mary a little differently—not quite as obedient or demure, although still full of grace. Honestly, I would be a little more hesitant to step into Mary’s role if asked, but not because I am shy about speaking in church or because of my theological education.
Mostly, it’s that I’m not sure I would have gone along with “The Plan.” The Church often tells the Christmas story as if it can be reduced to the tag line, “a baby will fix it!” For some Christians, this particular baby was divine, literally God-made-flesh, sent to make right what went wrong in the beginning, a “starting over’ of sorts. Jesus was the “New Adam”—the Adam without sin. In this scenario, Jesus was born to die, to be punished in our stead, to atone for our sins.
On the other end of the theological spectrum, the plan to save the world with a baby has nothing to do with divinely sanctioned child sacrifice. Rather, it is the most unexpected thing God can do. It is what makes Christianity so subversive. The Jesus birth stories were written in the midst of Roman occupation of Jewish people and destruction of the Temple. Everyone was waiting on the next King David to come with sword and shield to save the people in exactly the same way they had been taken captive: by power and control. But God’s plan to redeem the world was not through violent takeover, but a revolution of love that started with the crying infant who would grow up to teach forgiveness and mercy. The Empire would never see it coming.
As far as stealth and surprise go, The Plan was genius. However, when it comes to practicality and thoughtfulness, using a baby to save the world is shaky, at best. Quite frankly, it would have been reasonable if someone had told God that this was a terrible idea. Babies do not care about other people. They only worry about themselves. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Nope. That is not in the Bible. That is a Christmas carol written by someone who apparently had never spent any meaningful time with an infant. Sweet baby Jesus probably screamed his tiny head off on that not-so-silent night. Perhaps God might come up with a plan that does not involve so much crying.
Interestingly, there is very little information about baby Jesus in scripture. Two of the Gospels—Mark and John—skip his infancy altogether. We are simply introduced to Jesus as an adult, seeking baptism. The other two gospels, Matthew and Luke, really say very little about baby Jesus. Instead, the birth narrative focuses on people who the Church has designated as the supporting cast. The Gospel of Luke in particular dedicates a serious amount of real estate telling us about everyone who surrounded the baby. When we consider the text before and after the lectionary selection for Christmas Eve, the supporting case is rather large.
Luke’s first story is about Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. We are told about Mary running to Elizabeth, who convinces her everything really is going to be okay and that this baby will be a blessing. When it comes to the actual birth, Luke focuses on all who attended. This is the part we know best—the heavenly host and the anxious shepherds, who show up and declare the baby to be a child of God. Then, post-birth, we are introduced to the prophets Anna and Simeon, who were at the temple to greet Mary and Joseph and their infant son. They welcomed him into the community with a blessing.
The way Luke tells it, the Christmas story seems not to be about a baby at all, but rather about the people who raised that baby—the men and women who showed up and stuck around; the host of people who believed that they had a responsibility to give their best to a child; the people who promised to encourage the child to be curious and creative, to be faithful, to love every single other, and taught the child that he was a beloved child of God.
Maybe this is what the Christmas Story is really about: that God used an incredibly random assortment of folks—holier-than-thou angels, the near-homeless shepherds, a pair of young parents mentored by an older couple, strangers and friends—to save the world.
Is this a narrative of the Church that describes our congregations? Or might it be our vision statement? How are we carrying on the legacy of the rag-tag holy community that raised the Savior?
The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.
During my days as a youth minister, I served a church in South Carolina with a large number of children. One such child was named James, and on one particular day I was serving at the altar and saw James, along with his sister and mother, coming up to the rail for Communion. James was running ahead of them, and when he got to the rail he stretched out his arms and loudly exclaimed, “Give me a cracker!” His mother was embarrassed, worried that some of the Old Blue Hairs in the church might think her overly excited child shouldn’t even take Communion if he doesn’t know what it is. “Do any of us really understand what’s happening up there, though?” I asked. “What he does know,” I continued, “is that something special is happening, and he wants to be a part of it.”
We all know those folks in our churches who would have the same reaction to a child like James as all of those Old Blue Hairs did. Children should not fully participate in church until they have a grasp on how to behave and an understanding of what is going on! This is nothing short of a heresy, and the proof is right here in our Gospel text for the First Sunday during Christmastide.
Unless we break out the Gospel of Thomas—which, let’s face it, we really should sometimes!—we don’t get a clear picture of what Jesus was like as a child. Matthew features nothing between Jesus’ birth and his earthly ministry, Mark starts off at his baptism, and John has him existing before creation itself. Only Luke offers us anything resembling a childhood for little Jesus, and it occurs during the Passover when Jesus was 12 years of age. Granted, Jewish custom said that a boy became a man at such an age—12 is the traditional age for a Bar Mitzvah, after all—but even back then no one would have seen Jesus as anything more than a child (a fact made clear by his own mother’s exclamation, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”). Nevertheless, regardless of his age Jesus is drawn to the temple, to its teachers, and to the holy task of asking questions and wondering. It is here in this moment that Jesus, as young person, sets an example for each of us to follow, pursuing a relationship with God with excitement and wonder.
Like most children, Jesus doesn’t listen to his parents. He is not part of their caravan that came up to the holy city and was now heading back to Nazareth. His curiosity and wonder have gotten the better of him, and in a very real sense it seems that pre-teen Jesus is giving children of all ages the permission to wonder, to wander, to ask, to be excited, and to pursue God in their own creative ways.
I wonder what our own churches and faith communities would look like if we could instill in our people that they are to treat children the same way that those teachers treated Jesus. They didn’t shoo him away or ignore him. Rather, they engaged with him and let him speak. They did not negate his own experience of the holy, even if he was but a child. What might happen if the next time you heard a child cry out in church you stopped and listened? What might happen to your church community if the people saw children as full and equal partners, ministers of the Gospel by virtue of their baptism, and seekers of God no less so than they?
The Incarnation is beautiful for many reasons, not the least of which is the reminder that God was a child like any of us. In Christ, God wondered and wandered and whined and wailed. In Christ, God has set for us an example of what it means to be fully human, including what it means to be a child. Children are vulnerable, like little baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers, but children are also inquisitive like 12-year old Jesus wandering the temple to talk with the teachers about God. Somewhere we lost that perspective and treated children as nuisances that are to be silent until the day they get confirmed and learn all the secrets of the faith. Thanks be to God that James’ mother did no such thing and let her son run up to the Communion rail to ask for his cracker!
As we continue our Christmas celebration, let us remember not only the meek and mild baby but the inquisitive pre-teen who wanted to know more. Let us be mindful of such eager hearts and minds in our own congregations and seek to foster a community where those questions are not only tolerated but encouraged. We may find some of our older folks starting to wonder themselves, and we may find our own dried-up sense of wonderment renewed. After all, a little child will lead us!
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.