Thursday, January 03, 2008

Sermon from the First Sunday of Christmas

“Dwelling in the Shadow of the Manger.”
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147 Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 John 1:1-18
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Well…its over. Christmas I mean, at least that is what most people think.
My fiancĂ©e has been remodeling her house, so I had to stop by a particular department store on Wednesday morning to get a few more painting supplies. As I was pulling into the parking lot, the Lowe’s employees were out on the curb bundling up the unsold Christmas trees to get rid of them.
I went inside. What had once been several aisles worth of Christmas supplies had dwindled down to about an aisle and a half of what was left of the Christmas decorations in the store. There were a few red bows, some boxes and the tacky wrapping paper no one wanted the first time around, and some random strands of Christmas lights.
And of course everything was on sale. As I was rummaging around in the hopes of gleaning some bargain for next year, I came across some Christmas tree ornaments that depicted the Nativity scene. At first I was a bit surprised to find a nativity scene of any sort because this particular department store had caught some flack during the Christmas season because they had initially not wanted to advertise “Christmas” trees in fear of offending someone somewhere, so they initially had planned to call them “family” trees in their in store advertisements.
I have a friend of mine who works at Lowe’s and he said that policy was quickly dropped for two reasons. The first was purely practical because most of the customers would keep coming in and asking what the heck a “family tree” was. So, the sales clerks had to spend half their time explaining that “family trees” were really PC “Christmas trees.” This apparently left a bad taste in most people’s mouths. The second reason was the word of this folly leaked out to some media outlet like the Associated Press. After getting lampooned by certain media talking heads, and as my friend who works there told me, they came to work one morning and all the “family” tree signs had been quietly removed.
So as I stood there in the store that morning holding the Christmas ornament Nativity Scene, I almost had to laugh at the absurdity of the fact that after the “family tree” caper, they had now put the baby Jesus on sale.
I suppose that is just the way things are these days. People think Christmas is just one day, and come December 26th, the Christmas trees and lights come down because Christmas is over.
But that is not actually correct. Christmas, at least in the Western liturgical church, is 12 days. Christmas doesn’t end but just begins on the 25th.
Why is it that we need 12 days for Christmas?
The answer can be found today in the gospel. The Episcopal Church has adopted the Revised Common Lectionary which is of course is the lectionary that most major protestant denominations that use a lectionary are now using. (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Officially the Methodists though some local Methodist churches do their own thing.) The Roman Catholic Church has its own lectionary that is often very similar to the RCL but they deviate often especially on Old Testament readings quite a bit.
This Sunday, however, is one of the few times in the year that the Episcopal Church refuses to follow the Revised Common Lectionary that usually for most every other Sunday through the year we use. What we use for the first two Sundays of Christmas is the original Christmas readings of the original lectionary that is in the Book of Common Prayer.
If you go to another church in town, like say an ELCA church, the gospel reading today would have been a reading from the gospel of Matthew. Matthew is of course the gospel that we are reading throughout this year.
But what was the gospel this morning? It was a reading from the Gospel of John, wasn’t it? In fact, it was the first chapter of John, where we get this lovely, almost poetic, opening. Some biblical scholars think that the writer of the Gospel of John was using a pre-existent hymn of some kind that was incorporated as a beautiful opening to the Gospel that he interspersed with this narrative about John the Baptist.
Let’s read those words without those snippets about John the Baptist:
“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. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But 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.And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
That’s very beautiful but also very deep and full of varying levels of meaning. It reminds me of the time I got to go into the Sistine Chapel in Rome. All this beautiful artwork on the ceiling. After the tour of the Vatican museum before we all went into St. Peter’s Basilica, the tour guide (who was apparently had a degree in art history) stopped us and asked what we had thought of the Sistine Chapel. Some of the people in the group said that it wasn’t as large as they had imagined. One of the older members of the group who had apparently been to the Sistine Chapel years before when he was a child piped up with a comment on he must be getting senile because he didn’t remember the Sistine Chapel having so many bright colors used. His recollection of the Sistine Chapel was that it was sort of dingy.
With this comment, the tour guide busted out laughing and she said that this older gentleman’s recollection was, in fact, true. If you looked at Art History books printed before about the 1990s, if there was an art critique of the Sistine Chapel, it was usually that very comment, that is was very dark. Of course, Art Critics had all sorts of theories as to why. Some theories were that because of the artistic explosion in the renaissance, all the bright colors had been used up and so Michelangelo had to use darker colors. There was a theory that Michelangelo was depressed about his rivalry with Raphael so he painted in darker colors that reflected his depression.
In actuality, the truth came out when the Vatican renovated the Sistine Chapel (I think in the mid-1980s) and gave it a good cleaning and restoration. After they got done cleaning, everyone was suddenly shocked at how brilliant and vibrant the original colors of the Sistine Chapel ceiling were. The reason being was that for centuries, it was being used as a chapel, so the candles which had been originally made of animal fat and the incense smoke had basically floated to the top of the chapel and had covered the ceiling with a layer of soot essentially so that by the 20th century, the ceiling appeared very dingy when in fact it originally was anything but dark and dingy.
Art historians who had spent their careers analyzing Michelangelo and Renaissance art had to rethink their interpretations and rewrite most of the sections of Art Appreciation books because the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was not what they had remembered it being. Some historians are so threatened by the restoration that they claim the restorers went to far and basically cleaned it up too such an extent that Michelangelo did not intend.
I am not an art critic, so I am not going to get into that debate. My point in this analogy being that like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Christmas likewise deserves more than just the traditional secular interpretation. Over the centuries, we have added our own layer of soot to the meaning of Christmas.
We need to take time, more than just one day, and stand in the shadow of the manger. As the gospel of John reminds us, Jesus’ birth is more that just Santa Claus coming and bringing presents and midnight mass and singing Silent Night. The secular trappings of Christmas over the centuries can cover over the true meaning of Christmas.
I am not saying that any of those things that I mentioned are bad. I like Eggnog after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve as much as anyone. As Anglicans, our theology is very much steeped in this idea of the Incarnation. We need more than one Family filled, busy day on December 25th to allow ourselves to stand and dwell in the shadow of the manger so that we can both remember that God became Incarnate that Jesus became man.
But also, as we take a moment to stand at the foot of the manger to remember that God is Incarnate in us for we are all, as John says, ‘the children of God.’ When we walk away from the manger scene, we are all still ministers that go out into the world and if we call ourselves Christians, whatever we do for good or for bad, we are the face of Christ to the world in need of God’s grace, a world which is all to ready to forget the lessons of the manger and put the baby Jesus on sale.
Let us take time on these Twelve Days of Christmas and dwell in the shadow of the manger as we ponder what it means to have a God who is incarnate but who is also incarnate in us.
Amen.

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