Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
In this Gospel lesson appointed for today, there is a recurring word: light. In the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, we are reminded – seven times – that God is light, “the true light that enlightens everyone.” Light is a recurring theme during Christmastide, not just in the scriptures, but in life all around us. We see festive lights strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the country. In your home you may have a lighted Christmas tree and festive candles on your table or in your windowsill. Here in our chapel, our crèche is lighted; the altar is specially lighted with towering candles. This array of lights we customarily see in Christmastide has a Christian history, but not a Christian origin.
The tradition of lights this season traces its way back to the Roman Empire, which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti) on December 25th. Since early days, Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice,[i] when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky.”[ii] Isaiah had prophesied about the light of the forthcoming Messiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light…[iii]And so, light has figured very importantly into the Christmas story. The shepherds found their way to the manger of the Christ child by following a light in the sky. The Magi from the east also found their way to the Christ child by following stars in the night sky. In later years, the Gospel writers would remember Jesus’ saying of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[iv]
1 John 2:18-21
On this last day of the current year we can look back over the year now coming to an end. We can repent of our failures, and we give thanks for our blessings.
As we look forward to the New Year about to begin we can expect challenges. We should look with courage and hope, and we give thanks for rewards.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…
– John 1:1-18
My own cultural heritage is Swedish and German, and both sides of my family would want to lay claim on why we use greenery to decorate the monastery chapel in Christmastide, and why you probably have some Christmas greenery or a Christmas tree in your own home or apartment. The Christmas tree as we know it originated in the Middle Ages in what is now western Germany. The Christmas tree’s popularity grew out of a medieval play about Adam and Eve, the main prop being an evergreen tree called a “Paradise Tree,” decorated with apples. (Green and red. I’ll say more about that.) The notion of a “Paradise Tree” came from the Book of Revelation where we read of “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”[i] Paradise Trees symbolized hope for a restoration of the innocence of the garden of Eden. In time the Germanic people set up these “Paradise Trees” in their own homes on December 24th, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. The Germans had borrowed this symbol for the Paradise Tree from the ancient Scandinavians who – many centuries before they had been introduced to Christianity – worshipped the gods of the trees.
Welcome to a preaching series we’re calling: Finding God in Harvard Square. For part one this evening, we’re exploring creativity.
In the beginning, God “birthed creation from the formless womb of space.”[i] Birthed breath-taking beauty of earth and sky, bumblebees to blue whales, pumpkins to prickly pears, delphinium to dogwood. God who “counts the number of the stars … knows them all by their names.”[ii] We and all creation reflect the image and nature of God the Divine Artist. Creativity, the ability to make or think new things, is of God’s essence. Creativity reflects God.
Many of us were taught a narrow, restrictive view of creativity. It’s not just the arts. Not just for a select few who others approve of as artists.[iii] We create when writing an academic paper or a poem or an equation, designing a motor, building a bench, setting up a celebration, cooking a meal, or playing a game. All of us create or think new things. All of us reflect God.
Christmas is a mystery. In some ways, it’s a familiar story about a birth under less than ideal circumstances, like so many births. But, it’s also an utterly fantastic birth. A boy- child without human father born of a virgin mother; heavenly choirs of angels sing tidings of this birth to simple shepherds; a new star appears in the heavens to mark the site of the birth and strangers travel from faraway lands to pay homage.
We talk about the Incarnation but we really don’t know what we are talking about when we do. The Word, the creative principle of the cosmos, fully becomes flesh yet continues to be fully the Divine. What does that mean? There seems little room for such an unreasonable possibility. It’s entirely unreasonable. For centuries, Christians have tried to wrap their heads around this birth. The whole premise is beyond possibility. And that’s at least part of the reason why we have these stories so beyond possibility about a birth so utterly unreasonable.
This evening we continue our series, “Breaking the Word”. We’re taking some of the great big words in church-talk and giving them a closer look. We’ve had now “conversion” and “forgiveness”. Next week we’ll have “redemption”; the following week, “passion”. This evening’s big word: “grace”.
The English word grace belongs to a large cluster: Grace, graceful,gracious, gratis, grateful, gratify, gratuitous, congratulate, ingratiate. All grounded in Latin gratus: pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful.
And in the hinterland of the Latin-derived words are a cluster of Greek words: chara, joy; chairo, to rejoice; charizomai, to give freely; charisma, gift; eucharistia, gratitude, thanksgiving; charis, grace. The core word in the Greek cluster is chara, joy. There’s something of joy in grace.
Isaiah 61: 10-62: 3
Hebrews 1: 1-12
Several hundred years after the foundation of Christianity, while the new religion was still concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean but spreading rapidly over Europe, north Africa and the middle east, controversy broke out in the Church which caused serious dissension and could have destroyed any sense of unity.
One of my Brothers told me the other day about seeing Julia Child weeping. She was with the French chef Jacques Pepin on her TV show and they had made a nectarine tart. When it was finished, they sat down to eat. Julia wept. That something so good, so beautiful, so wonderful, so delicious should exist in this life moved her to tears.