St. Paul’s – Christmas 2 – 1/3/2021
In 1675 ,a fire destroyed most of London, England. Therefore, many of London’s most impressive, beautiful, and famous buildings were built between 1675 and 1725. In 1684, Sir Christopher Wren laid the cornerstone for what would be his greatest building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. It took thirty-five years to complete. When it was finished, Queen Anne took a tour of the building.
Wren waited breathlessly to see what she would say. At the end of a thorough tour, the Queen pronounced her verdict. It’s awful, it’s amusing, it’s artificial.
What? It’s awful, it’s amusing, it’s artificial? We may think, Wren must have been devastated. But he wasn’t. He was delighted. In those days – awful meant, full of awe, awe inspiring, awesome, amusing meant, amazing, unbelievable, and artificial meant artistic. What sounded to us like a devastating critique was, to Wren’s ears, the highest praise.
Today’s Gospel lesson says that The Word became flesh and lived among us. I am wondering how we make sense of this sentence in the modern world. Perhaps it is as foreign to our ears and our understanding as the Queen’s praise of Wren’s Cathedral.
It must be admitted that the Incarnation, God’s act of becoming human, has been difficult to comprehend and accept in any time and any place, not just the West in the 21st Century. Martin Luther said, The mystery of humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding. It is not a truth that can be explained by science or logic; it can only be proclaimed as revealed truth. But once it has been proclaimed, it can be explored so as to better understand the difference this mystery makes in our lives.
In these few verses, John used two philosophical and religious ideas current in the first century in order to get at what happened when God got born as a baby in Bethlehem. There is Logos from Greek philosophy which is the truth or wisdom of God. Then there is the Jewish Biblical idea that when God created the world, God spoke the world into being, God said, let there be light, etc. (Genesis 1:3 and following.) John then taps into the early church’s memory and proclamation about the man Jesus and the things he said and did. He puts it all together with soaring, poetic prose to show us Jesus as the living expression of God’s truth and wisdom spoken into earthly existence.
John proclaims to us that Jesus was the living, breathing, very human, creative, and life-giving power of God. John shows us God on one side and humanity on the other and Jesus in the middle as the word which God spoke to us about God’s love and purpose for us all.
A few years ago at a funeral over which I presided, a young man spoke lovingly about his father, Henry, a working class guy, a factory worker. The son had gone far, both far in life and far from home, studying in major universities in far-flung cities as he became first an M.D. and then a well-respected expert in his specialty. At the funeral, the doctor said that often when he called home, he would apologize to his father for being so far away, for seldom being able to visit. And Henry would say, It’s okay son, it’s okay. Alexander Graham Bell was a great man. He allowed us to go cheek-to-cheek anytime. Jesus was God’s way of going cheek-to-cheek with us.
This is the Word that seeks to become incarnated in the lives of his creation. Every now and again someone steps forward to offer their life as a symbol of this incarnation, such was the life of Henri Nouwen. Many of you may know him as a writer and lecturer. He was a trained psychologist and theologian who taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. He had a resume that many would die for – which was the problem. The demands of his schedule were suffocating him. He tried to escape the pressure by going as a missionary to South America for six months but when he returned the speaking requests only increased. Finally, he took up residence at a L’Arche community in Toronto called Daybreak. The community is dedicated to caring for the severely disabled.
Living as the chaplain in residence at Daybreak was quite a change for Henri Nouwen. He lived in a small room with a single bed and only one bookshelf. A few pieces of Shaker-style furniture and one print of a Van Gogh painting adorned the room. He did not have a fax or a computer. His Daytimer’s was removed from his simple desk. Each morning he would rise and care for Adam. It would take him nearly two hours to get him ready each morning. He had to bath and shave him. This would be followed by brushing his teeth and coming his hair. Next he would guide his hand to allow Adam to eat his breakfast.
When a fellow author suggested that this might not be the best use of a busy priest’s time, Nouwen replied, I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from the friendship. Those simple repetitive acts of caring for Adam had become for him an hour of meditation. This had not been easy for Nouwen. At first touching Adam was difficult. The messiness of caring for an uncoordinated person was uncomfortable. However, Henri learned to love Adam, truly love him and in so doing discovered a little of what it must have been like for God to love us-spiritually uncoordinated, retarded, unable to respond to the call of the Divine voice. In caring for Adam, Henri symbolized the miracle of the incarnation.
In a dirty messy manger stall the words of God become a living realty. God put into action, put into one life, all the words that he had been saying since the beginning of time. He delivered on a promise to present to us his glory and grace. He now calls us to allow that Word to become incarnated in our lives.
This is important because it made God’s love for us real and tangible. Holy love is like human love in that it has to be embodied in order to be experienced. It is one thing to believe in romantic love, in two people finding their heart’s desire in each other, candlelight dinners, moonlight walks, eternal bliss. It is quite another thing for two people to live together, to struggle to work out their differences, to accept one another’s flaws and shortcomings, to live face-to-face in a living, breathing less than ideal but oh so realistic relationship.
So it is with us and the holy. God became flesh and lived among us because God was not willing to be a far-off, spiritual ideal. God knew that for the divine/human relationship to be real, it had to be fleshed out. That fleshing out continues in the life of the church, the body of Christ as we embody our faith and love for God in our efforts to live lives of love with one another and the world.
Just like a marriage, it is seldom perfect, it is always a work in progress, it requires work to iron out our differences and accept one another’s flaws and shortcomings, to forgive and trust and love and go forward together. It is difficult. It is also awful, amusing, and artificial.
Thanks be to God. Let us pray….
we give you thanks that in your blessed incarnation,
you united heaven and earth, God and humanity.
Because we in our sin and weakness could not come to you,
you came to us.
You took on our flesh, our humanity, and lifted it up.
In you, we saw God’s intentions to be our God
and for us to be God’s people.
Light into our darkness, shine among us.
Show us not only your glory
but also how we might live in your light
and witness to your glory.
Help us to greet you as you are born among us.
As we gather at the beginning of a new year,
enable us to see you as gift of a fresh start,
a new beginning between us and God.
Because of you, it’s a whole new world,
and therefore we have hope of being new people in your name.