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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=105


 

Christmas II Year C (January 3, 2016)                          St James', Peace River

Christmas has a long echo. Longer in some places than in others, I'm sure – it was fascinating to watch over our past week's travels how the Christmas decorations and deals and specials faded faster in one restaurant or store than in another. But for us in church, the reverberations are pretty solid for nearly two weeks. The “twelve days of Christmas” is more than just a long and very repetitive song... it's a real tradition, which had a special flavour in past centuries in the British Isles, where there really wasn't a whole lot to do in the days from Dec 25th through to Jan 5th. So the church's calendar which incorporated many minor feasts related to Christmas, was matched by a secular world's willingness to celebrate and make merry, all the way from the servants' holiday on December 26th right up to the Twelfth Night revelry which Mr Shakespeare made famous.

It's difficult to imagine how our modern world would ever cope with twelve days of rest, enjoyment and leisure. We don't have the midwinter pause that our agricultural ancestors did – shops, offices, utilities and so on need to get back on their regular schedule almost right away, and even though many of us do manage to secure a few extra days off, we depend on the services of others to do the shopping and holiday-making we like to spend that time on. An old friend of mine used to say that the world would be better off if there was a week at the end of the year that just wasn't in the calendar, so no one could make any plans or appointments, we would just have to relax!

But the 12-day season was never just about relaxing, or partying, or gift-giving, even though all those things have a reason to be part of the season. Their purpose was to provide the long echo to Christmas – to let it reverberate through our lives and through our culture as more than just a single event that could quickly be celebrated and then left behind as the wheel of time moved on. Sp some of us do still find ways to affirm that echo – continuing to give gifts, keeping the tree up, beginning the New Year still in the spirit of Christmas, whatever it might be. And here we are today, on the 10th day of Christmas, singing a few more carols, and enjoying the last resonances of all the ways the church was clothed to celebrate the birthday of our King. And because it is the second Sunday of the season, we have a special echo in the gospel reading. The beginning of the gospel of John is actually the reading for Christmas Day. It's not the familiar story of shepherds and angels, from Luke, which is what we mostly associate with the festival. But for centuries on Christmas morning Christians have celebrated the dawning of the new day by reading about the Word which was life and light, shining out with the “glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” At the heart of that reading is the phrase which summarizes the story in a nutshell: “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” This is St John's insight into the deepest imaginable meaning of what Christmas is really about. The Incarnation – not just one more in a series of actions by God to get our attention and to call us back on to the path; but a pouring of God's own being into the world to be with us. This is the fulfilment of all God's promises, and of all the prophetic words ever spoken, but in a way no one could have seen coming until it happened.

The language of this gospel almost creates a paradox. We are used to thinking of earth and heaven as separate – almost as distinct planes of reality. There is the spiritual world, and there is the physical world, and we have largely become convinced that they don't really affect each other. That conviction has enabled tremendous developments in understanding cause and effect in the physical world – all the improvements we owe to medicine and technology, though of course not without some fresh threats and risks thrown in. There is still room in our world for people to think about what heaven really is, what the place of God is in our convictions about how to live, and what it means to be spiritual beings – but all of that is separate from the world we actually observe and move around in, and that has meant there is also room for people to stop thinking about spiritual truth and meaning altogether.

It's not as though we were the first generation or even the first era in history to face this problem. You can find it as far back as the pages of the Old Testament, where God's people always seemed willing to speak the language of faith while at the same time carrying on with their lives no differently than anyone else. And we see that equally nowadays, whether in or out of the faith community, whether people claim to be “religious” or “spiritual”, either word can be a cover for keeping heaven and earth, meaning and practice, completely separate.

What we celebrate at Christmas confronts that separation, because it is the one moment when above all the two worlds collide. And like galaxies colliding, the subsequent explosions are creative and life-giving. Heaven has come to earth. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. God is here, not via messenger or remote control or teleconference, but in person as part of this world we walk around and live our lives in. So you just can't pretend the two kinds of reality are separate any more. In fact, they never were. From the very beginning, all these things around us – “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses”, the earth which feeds us and to which we return, the tasks of daily life, the materials we work with, the bodies we take such joy and feel such pain in, the people and other creatures who share our days – all of these things have always been “charged with the grandeur of God”, reflecting the nature of their Creator and existing in relationship with Him.

And on the other side of the equation, God has never asked us to go somewhere else outside of ourselves, outside of our real life, in order to meet him, know him, and love him. Everything we need for the fullest possible relationship with God lies ready to hand, because it is all spiritual – that is to say, there is no separate spiritual realm in which God lives and to which we must go, because God who is Spirit is also the one who became flesh, joining the material and the spiritual together in a way which no one can ever put asunder. So if you want to know God better, then pay closer attention to the world around you; work better and harder and with greater dedication; love what you do and the people who do it with you; care about the things that matter so much to God that he made them in the first place, then sent his Son to enjoy them and care for them along with us, and promises to make out of them a new creation which will last forever in the power of his Spirit.

We need to know that, we need to remember it, and hold on to it in our hearts and minds for longer than one night. Because from God's side it is a done deal, but from ours it is not. He came to his own, but his own people – that's us – did not receive him. There is a long story about how and why that happens. It can only be turned around by an equally long story of redemption – of people rediscovering the truth, that God's heart is at the heart of our lives and of our world. And the birth of Christ begins that second half of the story, by making a way for the journey of rediscovery to begin – inviting people like us to see and to act on what we see, appealing to us not from a position of heavenly power but from a position of earthly vulnerability, which turns out (there's that paradox again) to be the same thing.

When we give that story the time to work on us, the time to echo in our lives, it turns out to have a much longer echo than we would think. Because it is not over in one night, nor is it over in twelve. The resonance of God becoming human, the Word becoming flesh, runs backward and forward through thousands of years of history, through billions of light years of space, and through every moment of your life and mine, from before our birth to beyond our death. It continues to echo when the trees are taken down and the lights are switched off, because it is then we can begin again to practise what we have learned: to find God's grace in what we give and receive every day; to find God's light overcoming the darkness that we and others experience; and to find God's love, born in a manger, living in every single possibility and every single action that lies right in front of us.