Christmas I, December 28, 2014
Eleanor Wellford, Associate Rector
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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
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, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.-John 1:1-18
Beginnings are so important! Think of how important it is for the beginning of a book to capture our attention or to inspire us to want to learn more. Beginnings of speeches or even sermons are important for just the same reasons.
Beginnings are important in setting the stage for what comes next and depending on our life’s experiences, we’ll react to what comes next in our lives with all sorts of emotions. Think about how we might feel starting a new school, or job or even a new relationship? Those emotions are actually driven by our expectations; and we learn early on just how powerful expectations can be – especially this time of year.
For example, think what children’s expectations are for Christmas. If Santa brought them what they were expecting or hoping for, then they’re happy. If he didn’t, then they’re disappointed. Whether we want to admit it or not, their experiences of Christmas are literally shaped by how their expectations are met.
So, what happens when they become old enough to contemplate the true meaning of Christmas? How will they be able to separate their expectations they associated with Santa from those we hope that they’ll associate with Jesus? Maybe the question is: How does anyone do that when Santa and the Baby Jesus arrive on the same day? How, when and why did that happen?
Not until some 400 years after Jesus’ death was evidence found in a Roman almanac of a particular day on which Jesus’ birth was celebrated. The entry said that “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea” (biblicalarchaelogy.org). The day that was established as his birth coincided with the winter solstice and a festival for a Roman god of agriculture named Saturnus. That festival lasted a week and ended on December 25th.
Over time, that pagan festival became “Christianized”, which was not an unusual thing to happen when followers of Christ realized that in so doing they could spread the good news of Christ without bringing attention to themselves or what they were up to, which in the past, would have made them targets of persecution. Jesus replaced the Roman god, then, and became known as the “true sun” – a play on words – who outshone even Saturnus.
So, where and when did Santa come in? Santa had his beginnings in the 4th century with a boy named Nicholas. Apparently, his parents died when he was young and Nicholas inherited a large sum of money which he used to help the poor. Nicholas became known for his secret gift-giving, especially to children. When he later became Bishop of Lycia in Turkey, he continued to follow Jesus’ example of helping the downtrodden. After his death, Nicholas was recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint – thus St. Nicholas, and his feast day was set on December 6th.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how the celebration of Saint Nicholas and his benevolence to children became conflated with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the gifts that were brought to him in Bethlehem. There’s an actual website (www.cuttingedge.org) that tries to make Jesus and Santa sound like one in the same by comparing their attributes. For instance: Santa is ageless and eternal; Jesus is ageless and eternal. No one knows when Jesus is coming again; no one knows at what hour Santa will come on Christmas Eve. Santa wants little children to come to him; Jesus wants little children to come to him. Both Santa and Jesus have distinctive beards.
And my favorite: Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good, and so does Jesus. It all makes perfect sense, right? The big difference, of course, is that Santa gets to go into hiding for a full year after his work is done; but Jesus has no place to hide nor rest because his work is never done!
As with so many things in our culture, it’s hard to keep our priorities straight and our theology in tact. Who hasn’t prayed to Jesus to fulfill a wish in a way we remember Santa somehow doing? Who hasn’t wanted Jesus to perform a miracle in the darkness and expectancy of a Christmas Eve night? I have no doubt that there’s a portion of Santa’s generous spirit in Jesus’ heart that our childlike nature is attracted to and that gets awakened in us this time of year. I’d also like to think we’ve experienced Jesus in other ways that help us realize that he’s God’s son.
We learn about that relationship between the Father and the Son throughout the gospels but especially in their beginnings. Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism where he is established as God’s beloved Son. In the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is established from his birth as Emmanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). And in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, an angel announces that Jesus “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32).
Then there’s the beginning of the gospel we heard this morning – John’s gospel. It’s about the first beginning before the beginning of anything. What are we to make of it once we get beyond the sheer poetry of it? It’s so different from how we like to imagine Jesus this time of year. Where is that baby lying peacefully in a manger? Instead, we hear John describing Jesus as the Word and the light. How can we imagine cuddling that?
Where is the Jesus whose birth was celebrated by cosmic events? Where is the baby visited by foreign kings bearing gifts? Instead we hear from John in his prologue that Jesus will grow up to be rejected by his own people. That doesn’t seem to set a very encouraging stage for the rest of his gospel, does it?
If it’s a good beginning, it should inspire us to want to keep reading it. Where is that inspiration? For me, it’s all the references to the light. Although John doesn’t specifically refer to love in the beginning of his gospel, I somehow sense it throughout all the verses that we heard this morning. It’s as if the ability for humans to see and know love in the way that God loves us wasn’t possible before Jesus. He was the one who, by his example, turned on the light of that divine love in our hearts.
The difference between divine love and human love has to do with our expectations – our expectations of love, which in turn have been shaped by our experiences of love, just like our expectations of Christmas have been shaped by our experiences of Christmas going all the way back to our childhood.
God has no expectations shaped by anything, which means God’s love is unconditional and perfect. And that makes Jesus the true light that John wrote about in the beginning of his gospel. If that light is not overcome by darkness and if that light is also love, then we are saturated by it and there is no “off switch” to it. Any expectations that we think accompany that love are of our own making and conditioning. They simply have no existence outside of our own fearful and anxious minds.
John wrote: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). That means to see Jesus is to see God; to hear Jesus is to hear God; to know Jesus’s heart is to know God’s heart. God’s heart is overflowing with the gift of love that we call grace. And God’s gift of his son, Jesus, is, as we heard from John this morning: “…grace upon grace” (John 1:16). That’s quite a beginning. Can you imagine one any better than that?