Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas in Three Movements

My readers all know, I think, that I work in an Episcopal hospital. More to the point, the hospital’s chapel is really not the hospital’s chapel. It is an Episcopal chapel, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop, with me as the Bishop’s vicar. The important aspect of that for this post is that there are certain Episcopal services that are maintained: Sunday Eucharist and Wednesday Eucharist with Healing Service.

During most of the year, preachers at those services are CPE students. However, at times during the year the students get a break and staff chaplains preach. So it was that one of my colleagues came to me and asked, “Do you guys [read “Episcopalians”] actually do John 1 for the Sunday after Christmas?” He is scheduled for this Wednesday, and so  would use the lessons from the previous Sunday, this Sunday, Christmas 1. I assured him that we did – that, in fact, for the third Eucharist of any Christmas (usually Christmas morning) we read John 1 and the beautiful “Hymn to the Logos.” “Well,” he said, “I have to write a sermon for Christmas on Luke. So, on Wednesday I’m preaching on Luke.” I blessed him, shrugged my shoulders, and told him to be sure to let the celebrant know.

We have a rather interesting way that we tell the Christmas story, we Episcopalians, in our Christmas services. (I don’t know whether others do it this way. Yes, the Episcopal Church uses the Revised Common Lectionary; but we use it with some of our own idiosyncrasies.) If one were to do three Christmas services (Eve and Day both), we would actually read three different Gospel passages. At the first, we would read from Luke, but only half of what most people expect. We would read about the census, and Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem, and about angels announcing good tidings to shepherds. At the second service we would read only the second part of Luke, about shepherds going “even unto Bethlehem” to actually see for themselves. Finally, in the third we would read, not from Luke, but from John, about the Word becoming flesh.

I don’t know how often that actually happens. We always have an option at the first two services – and, really, at the third – to read the entire Luke account of Jesus’ birth. It’s the story as everyone knows it, and has all that wonderful imagery and drama. Still, the plan as laid out in the Lectionary is to break the Luke account up, and to include the John. The point is pretty clear: to read, again and again and with different emphases, this sentence:

God did this.

Or, better perhaps, since we do break it into three parts:

God. Did. This.

Let me sort this out. It is an event in three movements, if you will. In the first movement, Luke’s story spends a lot of time on the power of the Emperor, and how civil necessity can make people move. However, the critical point comes when shepherds in the fields are confronted with the angel of the Lord; which is to say, with a message from God. “Today in Bethlehem is born a savior, God’s Messiah” Augustus may make some claims, but it is by God’s plan that David’s heir is in David’s city. It is God who proclaims it, and lets us know that God has done it. In the first movement, our sentence is,

God! did this!

In the second movement, the shepherds investigate. They go, and they find, and they see. The message from God is confirmed, and the faith of the shepherds is affirmed. We have the first witnesses. Sure, they’re not folks who are highly esteemed, nor terribly important; but, then, how many of us are? Rather, they are common folk, people who were, as my mother used to say, “of the earth earthy.” Sure, wise men will be great when they get there, but the first witnesses are witnesses we can trust because they are witnesses just as common as we are. The important sentence turns to,

God Did! this!

Which brings us to the third movement, the movement that takes us from Luke to John. It is John’s opening hymn that really lays out what God did. After all, we’ve all heard those sermons – I’ve certainly preached those sermons – about how the common concept of “messiah” in First century Judea was not what God was about. We’ve also realized often enough just how few people really understood. The Twelve didn’t really understand until the end of the story, much less the Seventy (or Seventy-two, depending). The women come closest, I think: Mary his mother, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene; but those stories, by and large, are also in John, and so already in the context of the opening hymn. John helps us all to get it: that what God was about on Christmas wasn’t just shaking things up a little. What God was about was wholesale reordering of how God had been doing things. What God was about was Incarnation, about Emmanuel, about no longer being apart but instead being with us. It is in John that the sentence is really completed:

God did This: the Word became flesh, and lived – and lives – among us.

A blessed Christmas Season to all, and a happy and healthy New Year.