The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

December 25, 2007
Christmas
John 1:1-18

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It would be difficult to find a more nostalgic day in the year than Christmas. Earlier this week I was reading an essay about the importance of Christmas to the essay’s author. What intrigued me about this essay, however, was not just that Christmas was important to this author, but that Christmas was important to this Jewish author. He spoke for a while about how he didn’t really believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but that he did believe that Jesus was an important historical figure, and that he should be revered for the usually positive influence that he’s had on millions of people throughout the world for centuries. Eventually, however, he admitted that perhaps the only reason that Christmas was really important to him was because it was celebrated so warmly in his home when he was growing up. He considered that perhaps his parents feared that he would feel left out as the only Jewish child in his neighborhood for not getting Christmas, so they instituted their own Jewish celebration of the Christian holiday – complete with tree and presents. Santa even came to visit. Somewhere along the line, the pattern of celebrating Christmas became natural for him, and he continues it now as an adult. A faithful Jewish adult, but one who celebrates Christmas.

I suppose that’s what Christmas is for many of us. It’s a time when we live out the rituals of our culture. For many people, part of that cultural ritual is attending church. It has less to do with what we believe, and more to do with what we do. We engage in these rituals as a way of holding on to what feels most comfortable for us. We do what we did in the past simply because it is what we did in the past. By continuing in the rituals of our childhood, we find ourselves feeling safe and secure and stable.

A parishioner pulled me aside recently and asked, “Why is there so much conflict around. It seems that I see it everywhere I go.” Through the course of the conversation I learned that she wasn’t just talking about conflict in church. She talked about finding conflict all around her community – in the organizations in which she participates, in stores as people anxiously stand in line, in her workplace. As she broadened her scope, she saw conflict all around the world. Between The Episcopal Church and other churches of the Anglican Communion, between disparate religious groups, within and between political parties, between nations and between ethnic groups and factions within nations. She felt overwhelmed by what seems like our pandemic inability to respect one another despite disagreements.

I agreed with her. It seems that there is fighting and strife and disagreement everywhere in the world. I wonder if that might be because, in this age of instant communication, we are finding it more and more difficult to feel secure in the world. Everywhere we look – newspapers, television, the internet – words swirl around reminding us of the instability of the world. These words tell about war and terrorism and natural disasters at every turn. It seems harder and harder to find that safety and security and stability that we felt as simple children, finding rewards from Santa and loving parents under the tree on Christmas mornings. In such an insecure world, it’s very easy to begin to lash out at one another. It’s easy to pin blame on our brothers and sisters when the words that we hear keep telling us that our world is falling apart around us.

I think that’s at least part of why the world feels a little more peaceful at Christmas. As we lose ourselves in the familiar traditions of the season, the world seems to make a little more sense. We hear once again the comforting words that remind us of simpler times. We remember and reenact those traditions from the safety and security of our childhoods – a time when the world at least seemed simpler – and we fool ourselves into believing that life really was easier.

It really is odd that we should retreat to such sanctuaries of familiarity at Christmas. Though store windows and popular holiday music would have us forget it, the fact remains that Christmas is about remembering the birth of Jesus. Not just a baby, but God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, walking among us as a person.

The gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” One of my favorite writers of theology, Marjorie Suchocki, said this in another way, “The ultimate Word of God is not a paragraph, but a person.”

That’s the real irony of Christmas, particularly as it relates to our popular culture. God made God’s Word a baby. Not anything particularly special. A baby dependent on his parents. A baby born to average parents in less than average surroundings. A baby born in a town that never really amounted to much. He was just this little baby, but he would grow to show us in new ways that God can live even in us. It’s an extraordinary event. We remember it these two thousand years later not because it was a model of safety, security, or stability – the birth, life, and death of Jesus were anything but safe, stable, and secure – but we remember it because it was so very new. God had been acting in the lives of people throughout history, but in the moment of Christmas, God began acting in our lives in a new way. God did an entirely new thing, and it’s worth celebrating.

Too often we are terrified of change. We fear that change means that our world is unstable. We fear that change might mean that we will lose our footing in an unstable world. We fear that change will descend into chaos. Even if it does, we forget that chaos is the soil out of which God’s creation grows. That’s certainly what the religious and political establishments in the time of Jesus feared. They feared that the changes that he proposed – the new ways of relating to God – would destabilize their society and their own positions of public trust and power. They were so afraid of him that they tried to cut him down. Then, in the midst of what must have seemed to his followers like utter chaos, God sowed a new creation – new life for Christ. New life so profound that it could not be contained in Christ. It spilled out into all the rest of creation.

That’s what we celebrate in Christmas. There was a new life that looked unremarkable. It was just a baby. But it wasn’t just a baby. It was the Word of God made flesh. And through the new life of that child, the new life of resurrection could be born.

The word of the world was then and is now death and disaster, distance and anonymity. But the Word of God is relationship. Love. Life.

Merry Christmas.

Enjoy the rest of this day as a time to surrender to those cultural rituals that await us. Retreat into the warm embrace of their familiarity. I know I will. But as that feeling fades and as the cold winter ahead moves in around us, remember that the Word of God is stronger than whatever words the world may offer. Insecurity and instability are not the final word. When those words surround you, look for the Word of God. It lives. Amen.

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