Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 24, 2015
Like many of us at this time of year, I have probably spent too much time shopping in stores and, now, online. And, at one point during the maddening rush of this week, I began to wonder if there were a vast conspiracy afoot to undermine completely my already strained ability to take the foolishness of our times in stride. I even began to understand just why the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson never left the house and grounds of her father’s home, and here’s why.
There I was, innocently browsing in the religion section of a Barnes & Noble bookstore when my eye glanced upon a book with the provocative title of Jesus in Blue Jeans: A Practical Guide to Spirituality. Well, who among us could resist? I waited until I was quite sure that no one was watching before I furtively snatched the book from the shelf. And I didn’t need to read any further than the first few sentences of the dust-jacket’s description to confirm my dark suspicions and to get a pretty good idea of the author’s slant on Jesus of Nazareth. The sampling included such “gems” of wisdom as—and now, I’m afraid, I am quoting—“Jesus the leader, who tells us that moving isn’t fun”; and “Jesus the worker, who never whines, but only hums.” And, to make matters even worse, this book, we are told, is the last in a trilogy of such books by the same author. With that, my amusement changed to horror because this meant that two other books just like it had already been unleashed upon our confused and hapless world! Having had quite enough of this trendy, “wonder-bread” Jesus portrayed not as a fount, but as a mere puddle of so-called spiritual wisdom, I decided to read no further and I quickly returned the book to the store’s shelf where I hope it has found a permanent home. Thanks, but no thanks, I thought.
Later, on that same day, I had a very similar experience in an entirely different context. This time, as I reached into my mailbox, I pulled out a flyer from a reputable seller of theological books entitled, “New Books in Religion.” This ought to be pretty safe, I thought, as I scanned the titles and descriptions of these tomes in the privacy of my home. And then, suddenly, there it was, at the top of the page, with a photograph of its cover to insure my attention: Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait. This book promised—and now, I’m afraid, I’m quoting once again—“to delve deeper into the psychological make-up of Jesus, exploring”—and I’m still quoting here—“such issues as the tensions between Jesus and his family; Jesus’ relationship to Joseph, and how that can be inferred from his image of a Father-God”; and finally, still quoting, “the significance of John the Baptist as mentor to Jesus.” I knew right then that I really wouldn’t need to read this book, because the author’s very selection of topics gave me a pretty good indication of his “psychological profile” of Jesus: This would be another in the seemingly endless profusion of “thoroughly modern,” post-modern profiles of Jesus portraying him as a bright, but somewhat confused religious rebel and seeker from a dysfunctional family system in a hopelessly sexist and patriarchal culture. Once again, I thought, thanks, but no thanks!
Well, it’s a very long way from these two books drawn from both our popular and academic cultures to the very different portrayal of Jesus and his universal significance in tonight’s readings from Holy Scripture, all of which proclaim nothing less than that this infant and temporarily homeless Jewish child is God’s “Messiah,” God’s “anointed one,” promised, according to Christian reckoning, by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. And the Jesus of the Saint Luke’s and the other canonical Gospels is most definitely not merely another itinerant Jewish rabbi and preacher with psychological hang-ups, dispensing pop-psychology like a guest on Ellen or Dr. Phil. Rather, the holy evangelist John goes so far as to state boldly that, even before the foundation of the world, the eternal “Word of God,” now incarnate in this mewling infant in Bethlehem named “Jesus of Nazareth,” “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.” And “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.”
So, there it is in a nutshell: the absolute scandal of the Gospel; the unvarnished truth; the “good news” and the faith of the Church about the person of Jesus the Christ. And it’s the very heart of the Christmas message that you and I are charged by our Baptism to carry into the world, especially during what has become in our secular culture the bland “holiday season.” Jesus Christ is nothing short of the “Light of the World,” the “Word “and the “Wisdom” and the “Power” of God, whose Incarnation and holy Nativity we are only beginning to celebrate tonight at the outset of our twelve-day festival of light and love and hope. And God knows that, in this time of terror and war, our violent and distracted world needs all of the light and hope and love it can find. And so, in the words of that ancient Christmas hymn, we Christians boldly proclaim to the world—both in and out of season—that Jesus Christ is
“Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the world began to be;
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he;
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
[He is] evermore and evermore!
This is the true meaning of Christmas: God’s unfathomable gift to us of God’s great love and saving justice made humble flesh in human history in the person of Jesus the Christ. And we don’t need to go hunting for Jesus or for the meaning of Christmas amid the wreckage of post-modernity, with its mindless consumerism, materialism, and rationalism and its culture of violence and death. We will find him where we may always find him: in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church; in the silence of our hearts through our lives of prayer; in our neighbors, regardless of their sort or condition; in the marginalized and suffering humanity all around us; and even in our enemies if we have the eyes of faith to see him imprisoned there.
And so, it is in response to this same divine Love—and as an act of profound gratitude for the invaluable gift given to us in Jesus of Nazareth—that we Christians make merry and give gifts to each other during this holy season. It is our exuberance over this outrageous act of God’s humble, self-emptying love for the world that causes us to light up the winter darkness with all manner of lights as a silent witness to the power and persistence of that unquenchable Light and Love, who lives in our hearts and in our world, despite the unspeakable horrors of our times, and who makes himself palpably present to us through the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, “that wonderful and sacred mystery,” in the words of our Prayer Book.
Each and every Christmas is a renewed and a special summons from God to allow Jesus the Christ to be born in us today—in the here and in the now—just as he was born to Mary and Joseph over two-thousand years ago in Bethlehem. For by taking human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, God shows us decisively that God is not some super-object or cosmic policeman subsisting just outside the edges of the material universe of time and space and matter, uninvolved in the history of our suffering and distracted world. No, God is the personal and relational Source and Ground and Presence who dwells in each one of us as the power to suffer, to love, to give thanks, to desire God, and to pray. The First Letter of John tells us that “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in her or him.” We meet this God every time we step toward that Horizon of gracious and loving Mystery, and every time we respond in our prayer to the summons of what Saint Ignatius of Loyola called the “Magis” or the “More.” For as Christians, we know that, with the birth of the Messiah, the “kingdom of God” is already among us, that “eternity” is now, and that the “resurrection of the dead” is the new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in the very here and now.
Politicians and pundits have been telling us ever since the terror attack of September 11, 2001, that everything in America is different now because dark clouds of fear and terror have finally shaken fortress America, and that they will continue to overshadow us for the foreseeable future. And it may be so. Yet, as Christians, as “prisoners of hope,” we know that we have been living in the eschaton, the “last days,” the “end times,” ever since that first coming of Christ two-thousand years ago, each of which “in the eyes of God is but a day,” according to the psalms. And so our faith is not shaken; our hope is not dimmed; and our love is not blunted even in a time of terror and war—especially in a time of terror and war. Christmas reminds us that “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it [and] to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Even in these dark and uncertain times, this is ever the Gospel, ever the “good news,” because God, who poured out all of God’s love for us in the incarnate Word born as Jesus of Nazareth, now wants to give a new birth, a new beginning, to anyone who receives him and who believes in his name through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And that’s you and me and anyone else in this dark and benighted world willing to be illumined by this radiant Light; to share Christ’s suffering in the suffering of others; and to live the risen life according to his law of unconditional Love. During this Christmastide, the God of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son—the God of compassion, forgiveness, saving justice, and “rich in mercy”—is running to meet us anew, and is assuring each one of us again that “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” What an astonishing gift God, the Holy One of Israel, has given us in Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ, who is still waiting in our world and is still knocking at the door of our hearts, asking to be born there again and again and again…!