Christmastide: A Reminder Where Our Hearts Belong

One Christmas morning, I made my way through the streets of Los Angeles to the inner-city parish I was serving for the Christmas Day service.  After the usual late evening before with all the excitement of Christmas Eve, children, food and drink, and the midnight mass, I found that although I was tired to my bones, I looked forward to the morning service with its small crowd.  As a clergy person, the pressure was off.  And, as usual, the streets that Christmas morning were deserted.  Most families were at home, still asleep or sitting around in their pajamas, opening presents.  My normal drive to the church took me under a freeway overpass.  As I approached the freeway, an odd sight caught my attention; and it made me look again.  

It was a pink aluminum Christmas tree about three feet high set up on a small triangular littered patch of grass between the bridge and the onramp to the freeway.  There amid the blown trash and dirt and grime of an inner-city overpass was this strange, glittering piece of joy; it made me smile and also tore at my heart for I knew to whom it belonged.

For, you see, back up under the bridge where the steel girders and the slope of the concrete meet, a number of people made the space their home.  It provided shelter against the wind and rain.  The church was two blocks away, and during the day a number of them would make their way to the church office for a bagged lunch.  We got to know them over a period of time.  From a variety of backgrounds and for a variety reasons, they had found themselves homeless living on the streets.  With little doubt, I knew that pink aluminum tree had been rescued from the side of the road somewhere and placed there as their own, for a bit of their own celebration of Christmas joy.

I was reminded of the passage from John's gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Today is the first Sunday after Christmas Day; it is part of the Christmas Season, part of the twelve days of Christmas.  On Christmas Eve, I heard a television anchor start out by saying: "Now that the Christmas Season is coming to a close...."  And I thought, well ... actually, the Christmas season begins with Christmas day and continues for twelve days rather than the twelve days before December 25, even though some Christmas trees are already finding their way to the curb and stores are advertising after Christmas sales and putting up Valentine and spring decorations.

Today, we continue our Christmas celebration. While many of us have exchanged gifts and most of the packages have been opened with the exception of a few like Aunt Betty's present still under the tree because she didn't come this year or those that are opened during the twelve days--some folks do that--this part of the Christmas season tends to be a quieter time.  As we move past the frantic crush and push of the shopping season, we are given another opportunity to be reminded what is at the heart of our celebration.

Today's gospel is taken from the prologue to the Gospel According to John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  This is where John's gospel begins--in the beginning.  This is John's nativity story; it is not with shepherds and angels or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  In this nativity story, this Christmas story, John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the book of Genesis: In the beginning God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, "Let there be light."  In John's gospel, from the very beginning was the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said "let there be light," this same God who was from the beginning and spoke that Word, this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it.

Since Thanksgiving, the shopping malls have been telling us that "It's the most wonderful time of the year."  For many it is a mixed bag.  Christmas isn't what it was when I was a child and never will be again.  I'm an adult; it is different; it just is.  In this economically difficult time, many have lost jobs or seen their investments and securities dwindle--unsure of what the future holds.  Perhaps we have not been able to do what we might have liked to have done for Christmas.  Many husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, serve in harm's way and are not with family this Christmas.  There are those living with illness or with grief at the death of a loved one--sorrow intensified during this season of memories of Christmas pasts and high, perhaps unrealistic, expectations of what Christmas is suppose to be.  There might be those who are just as happy to have the celebration done with and over.

On a visit to a local hospital before Christmas, I stopped at the front desk to find the room number of a patient I was to visit.  The woman sitting at the desk was talking with another hospital employee.  They stopped their conversation to give me the room number.  When they realized I was a clergy person, one of them asked, "Can you believe that?" and she pointed to the nativity set on the desk counter.  It took me a moment to take in what they were talking about.  "Somebody stole Jesus.  Can you believe that?"  And, in fact, Jesus was missing.  There was Mary and Joseph and a shepherd, a donkey and a sheep, but no Jesus.  I had to laugh to myself; it reminded me of the nativity set I had bought a few years ago that was missing one piece--one out of forty something--missing the baby Jesus.  "Somebody stole Jesus right off this counter!  Can you believe that?"  I didn't really know how to respond, so I offered, "Well, I guess somebody just took Jesus out of Christmas."  They just stared back at me.  So, I tried again, "Uh, maybe he is out in the hospital making rounds, maybe he'll be back when he's done. Hmmmm, maybe the person who took Jesus really needed him."  I don't think they really appreciated my attempt at humor, so I said, "Well, let's hope they bring him back soon," and I went on my way.

During these twelve days of Christmas amidst all the things that pull at us, we are reminded, called back to where our center is to be located, where our hearts belong--to celebrate the mystery of God becoming flesh and blood and to joyously receive the coming of Christ among us, the Word made flesh, the Word that gives life and breath and hope to us all.

Christmas is about the almighty, powerful, transcendent God who comes near, becomes immanent.  Sometimes we do talk about the transcendent God, mysterious and unknowable, beyond comprehension--which is true--but here in this celebration, God the Creator takes on flesh, our flesh, and becomes one of us, lives among us.  In the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes announcing life and not death.  Later in John's gospel, we will hear Jesus say, "I come that you may have life and have it abundantly."[1]  Jesus' way is the way of the Creator, the way of life.  He is that Word spoken in the midst of our chaos and darkness and creates life where all may seem impossible.  And in and through Jesus, we are shown how we are meant to be, full of life, full of hope, full of joy--that even as God has poured upon us the new light of God's incarnate Word, we are to allow this light to shine forth in our lives.

On this first Sunday after Christmas Day, we are called to let the light of the incarnate word shine forth in our lives.  In his book, Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox writes: "We enter a broken, torn and sinful world--that is for sure.  But we do not enter as blotches on existence; we burst onto the scene as 'original blessings.'"[2]  And, oh, how we need to hear that.  The incarnation, God becoming flesh, has shown us a different way of seeing life and living in the world--that the creation is good, that the world we live in is good, that our bodies are good, that we are "original blessings."  And as original blessings, we are called to live with love and justice with all that is part of the created order; we are called to be fully human, fully alive--not just marginally alive people.  Matthew Fox goes on to say, "Being alive is not the same as going shopping or making a nest in which to escape the suffering of others.  Living has something to do with love of life, and the love of other's lives and the other's rights to life and dignity."

At baptism in our Church, candidates are asked, "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?"  This is part of what it means for us to be alive in Christ.  The real struggle with this Christmas is not if there are to be Christmas trees in airports or nativity scenes in front of City Hall or if we spent more than we should have; the real struggle for the soul of Christmas is allowing Jesus, the "Word made flesh," "God made flesh," to be genuinely enfleshed in us, enfleshed in our hearts and minds and hands, enfleshed in our relationships and in our care for the stranger, for the jobless, for the homeless, for those in any need or trouble, enfleshed in our struggle for justice and peace among all people.

God the Creator, who created the earth and the universe and saw that it was good, continues to create.  Creation continues and the creator remains active, always seeking the best for all people, desiring that we may truly live.  And today we continue to celebrate that creative living Word taking on our form and substance, becoming a human being.

In this season of gift giving and all that pulls and tugs on our hearts, may we remember the good gifts that the Creator has given us, the sun and the moon, this good earth with all its blessings of sky and water, plants and animals, this incredible gift of life, of flesh and blood, of breath and memory, this day, this moment, and all those who people our lives, both joy and sorrow, and all that it means for us to be fully human, fully alive.  And, above all, may we remember the gift of the Word made flesh sent to save us, to heal us, to bring us joy, to bring us back to God's own self. 

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

[1] John 10:10

[2] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Santa Fe, Bear & Co., 1983, p. 47.