St. Giles’ Episcopal Church
December 30, 2018 – The First Sunday after Christmas
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Every year on the first Sunday after Christmas we hear the opening passage of John’s gospel, the passage known as the “Prologue.” These glorious, theology-filled words remind us that Christmas is about more than a sentimental journey to Bethlehem to see an adorable little baby with his mother and father, in company with angels and shepherds. John’s gospel tells us about the deeper meaning of this birth. At Christmas we remember and honor the incarnation of God in Christ. God became man and lived among us. These words are so familiar to us that we may lose sight of the magnitude and mystery of what they describe. On this first Sunday after Christmas our attention is drawn to the significance of the child born in Bethlehem.
“In the beginning was the Word.” The gospel begins by reminding us of the beginning of the Bible itself, the opening words of Genesis. “In the beginning.” This story goes back as far as you can go. And the beginning included the Word: not just a spoken word, but the whole, nearly miraculous ability to wonder and discover, to speak and to listen, to speak what we have learned and to hear others speak to us about what they know. It is logic, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and discernment, all in one central idea.
The gospel goes on to connect this ability with two other aspects of our world: life and light. The Word creates the world, and the nature of the world is life. Every person participates in that life, and what is more, every person experiences that life as light – as the ability to see, understand, discover, and grow in knowledge. The light overcomes the surrounding darkness, and the light shines on and for everyone.
Then comes the great statement, the inner meaning of the birth of Jesus. Once again, the gospel refers to the Hebrew Bible, to the book of Isaiah (40:6-8): “All flesh is grass …. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” The story of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Luke was one of deep humility, of God in human existence not as a great king but as a helpless baby; in John’s gospel we hear the depth of this humility, when the eternal, indestructible Word of God becomes flesh, the sign of what is fading, withering, and destined for impermanence. “The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” God’s love reaches out towards the world that God created, and dwells and travels with us. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” God’s humility is the way of fullness of grace, so that we may truly know God: “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.” When we gaze upon Jesus, we are invited to see into the heart of God, and to make that love, and that humility, our own.
In college, as a member of the concert choir, I had the challenge and pleasure of singing Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.” If you aren’t familiar with this work, I highly recommend it to you. It is often performed at Christmas time. Britten was a brilliant 20th century British composer. This piece is based on poetry written in Latin, Middle English, and early modern English. One of my favorite sections of the work is “This Little Babe.” The words are a poem written by the 16th century Jesuit Robert Southwell. I will read it to you now.
This little Babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold:
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake:
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
And feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall:
The crib his trench, haystacks his stakes;
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight [pitched].
Within his crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.
Great humility and great love – the message of Christmas – as John’s Gospel and this poem by Southwell remind us. This Christmas season and always, join your soul with Christ in the fight against all that is contrary to God and God’s holy and righteous will for all people, a fight that is often humble and waged in secret, often marked by self-sacrifice, and always loving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.