Last night we remembered together the infancy narrative of Jesus. We listened (yet again) to God coming into the world as a child. This morning, John’s Gospel expands this story adding an element of theological significance: The Word was made flesh. The Greek literally means, “pitched his tent among us.” God pitched his tent among us, and put on flesh. He became an icon, an image, a body for our sake. Today is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord. We celebrate God becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – not Spirit as software somehow booting up with the body and hardware of Jesus, but Body and Spirit so intricately connected that Christ can only be described as fully human and fully divine. This is good news for us, and what it means is that our very bodies are sanctified and made holy in and by and through Christ. We are made holy because God (and God’s Body) is holy. This is our Christmas gift, and we are to share it with the world as Christ continually (and intimately) shares his body with us each and every time Holy Communion is celebrated. This Christmas, may we all remember the gift that keeps on giving – that is – Jesus Christ Our Lord who in these holy mysteries feeds us with spiritual food made for holy bodies.
**Sermon preached at the midnight mass Christmas Eve service at St. Julian’s**
And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ~Luke 2:7
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ~Luke 9:58
It’s been said that Jesus’ shortest sermons ever can be boiled down to one word, “Go.” “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). “Go. Teach all nations. Baptize” (Matt 28:19). “Go. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers, few” (Luke 10:2). At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he told his disciples, “I am going away. Where I am going you cannot come” (John 8:21). In tonight’s Gospel, the shepherds get a positive reinforcement of the command, “to go”. The angels persuaded them in this regard, and they replied, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” The scripture continues, “So they went with haste… and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
Tonight, we go. We travel, making haste with those shepherds the journey to see the Son of Man lying in the manger because there was no room in the inn…because the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. In this regard, the Son of Man slept underneath the stars like a lowly shepherd. No wonder the two related; and the scene of the manger foreshadowed it all for us: The Son of Man would suffer, die, and be buried in a tomb that was not his own. It is a story of poverty as common as breathing, and as old as the wind; and yet this night shepherds and angels join in a chorus proclaiming holiness. In that manger scene was the man who would one day say to the poor, those that mourn, the meek, hungry, and merciful, “You are blessed, and you will be a blessing.” Not much nostalgia tonight, is there? No reminiscing here. In fact, there are two different reactions/responses we gain from the characters in our story this evening. The shepherds go again, making “known what had been told them about this child.” The scriptures continue, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Put sequentially: The shepherds were doing the work they had always done. They stopped this work; discerned a word from the Lord; acted upon that word which transformed their lives; and then went and told others about it. This is the call of a convert and disciple – a classic call to repentance: To turn from something to something (all together new) by the power of God. This process of repentance is ongoing. It’s not one moment in time, but a lifetime of giving up oneself for the service of God and a chance to participate in His holy story.
The other reaction/response came from Mary. The scriptures read, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I think Mary needed something to hold onto. In the season of Advent, we learned that Mary’s very soul would be pierced. Pierced, possibly by despair as she kept giving more and more of herself, and eventually her son to the world that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. At that moment when lowly shepherds sang out the music of angels, she knew that Jesus was going to be bigger than her. She knew she would have to let go and let God time and time again. As a mother, these selfless acts would be piercing. As a follower of God, she understood them to be necessary. “Where I am going,” said Jesus, “you cannot come,” would later be directed at his disciples, but I wonder if he didn’t have his mother in the back of his mind while commanding this?
Tonight, you will leave. Go to the parking lot. Get in your vehicles, and go. Some of you will go home. Some of you will go to a place that welcomes you, be that another family’s home, or a hotel. In other words, you have a place to lay your head. But if you will, I’d like for you to do something. When you walk outside, and feel the cold brushed up against you, look up. If you don’t do it immediately after church, look to the sky on your drive home. This is the night where angels once gathered in those skies, but it is also the night where the one they proclaimed had no place to lay his head. When thinking on these things, I believe we carry with us the two responses mentioned earlier. We have the response of the shepherds who could relate to this holy family bundled up in a manger. Their response was one of repentance and praise. The other response is treasuring these things in our hearts. Not in some nostalgic, worldly way, but in a Godly way. That is, recognizing the holy in the mundane and being grateful. This Christmas why not be grateful? Return to the manger. Sing with the angels. This Christmas, join Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, and Jesus in his mission and ministry…
An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”
The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality – “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.
Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).
“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
What are we to do with this statement?
I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:
He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!
It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.
As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
Today we contrast John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord with inquisitors searching for their own meaning within tradition. John revealed a new interpretation on an old custom teaching those inquisitors to get outside themselves, and to practice new riffs on old songs through the art of preparation.
What is Preparation?
Preparation is laying down a foundation to be built upon. It is the task of planning; a lesson from the virtue of prudence. It’s a recipe for a meal, a practice swing before hitting the ball, a deep breath before jumping in. Preparation is a means to a greater end; the vehicle that gets you to your final destination. It’s a map and a menu, a first step on a hike, and saying ‘yes’ to a task that is difficult.
Remember Your Preparation as You Look for the Goal
Preparation ultimately gives witness and testimony to the goal. Starting on February 9th, we will begin hearing much language around these notions of goals. February 9th begins the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the goal of every Olympian is to capture the gold. In order for an athlete to accomplish victory, she must put nutritious foods into her body, strenuously exercise, and practice her sport daily. She must also be aware of those substances, temptations, and time that could hinder her workout. St. Paul put it this way, “hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21). When I watch the experience of the athlete finally winning the prize, and standing upon that podium there seems to be a moment when the very persona of the athlete goes away. What remains is an attitude of humbleness, a posture that’s almost prayer-like. Perhaps she is remembering her preparation while the rest of the world bears witness to a champion.
John & Mary – Advent Saints
John the Baptist was a champion of sorts, and yet when faced with a barrage of questions asking if he was the goal – if he was ‘It’ – he answered in the negative, and quickly pointed to preparation, training, and practices. He pointed to water that not only cleansed one from sin, but humbled the heart toward ongoing repentance. He pointed to straight roads, and narrow paths, as well as voices of longing drowned out and crying inside the wilderness of the world. John was not the celestial sun, but the awakened moon whose only source of light came from its closest star. And like the moon that steadily snuffs itself out every 29 1/2 days, John understood that he must decrease in order for the light of the world to increase.
Advent’s hero and heroines of preparation most certainly are St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. While John revealed preparation, it was Mary, the Mother of God, who said, ‘yes’. What did she say yes to? None other than the goal itself – the telos, the lamb, the Christ, the Messiah. It is John’s preparedness and Mary’s paradoxical passivity that reveal their saintliness to us (and for us). Christ certainly calls us all to imitate him; yet every Advent I have this overwhelming desire to imitate these saints of the Church. To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest who they are all the while teaching me whose they are.
This morning’s collect began, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” John understood from where the power came, and taught that this power is mighty among us when we get out of the way, when we cry out, and when we make room within the inns of our hearts because all the inns of the world hold no vacancy. Mary knew that the mighty would be thrown down with this power, not because it’s war-like, weaponized, or violent, but because its yoke is easy and its burden, light (Matt. 11:30).
It is this light-heartedness along with the shining light in the darkness that this week of Advent now turns. We not only turn to the saints of Advent, these eternal saints of the Church, but we also turn to eternity itself. And if we turn to eternity, if we let these saints point us in the right direction, then we must prepare our hearts to receive it. We must prepare our minds to think differently. We must prepare our souls for revelation. God is about to reveal new things. God is about to disclose his secrets. God is about to unlock a great mystery, and if we honestly intend God to “stir up His power” then for heaven’s sake may we all be prepared.
St. Mark’s Gospel
Today, liturgical churches around the globe begin reading St. Mark’s Gospel. This Gospel will be heard periodically throughout the entire year, and it’s a gospel I always enjoy exploring at deeper levels. Two thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing today’s blog. The first has to do with the truth claim that Jesus is Son of God. The second will explore John the Evangelizer as he prepared the way for the Son.
Jesus is the Son of God
Mark’s gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After this sentence, he proceeds to tell his story, but I want to pause for a moment and help us understand just how controversial this opening line would have been when it was first read, performed, or said over 2,000 years ago. Putting the title, Son of God, into the context of the ancient Roman Empire ruled by dynasties of emperors, the ancient Romans would have attributed the title to Caesar. There were certain formalities and rituals that not only held Caesar in high estate, but it was commonly held and believed that Caesar was divine – thus holding the title, the Son of God. So when Mark’s opening lines were read claiming another emperor, ruler, and king, it got people’s attention in the town square, house churches, and eventually within the court of Caesar himself represented through the historical Pontius Pilot. Right off the bat, Jesus was considered an enemy of the state, and a threat to the ruling class. When St. Mark’s gospel was written, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, but his disciples, apostles, and other followers were still around, their very lives being threatened in similar ways because they claimed Jesus was the Son of God – not Caesar. For the early church to preach against Caesar, or the State for that matter, and to claim Jesus Christ as the Son of God or Lord of Lords was to combat Roman idealism and patriotism. The Church countered this ideology in the person of Jesus Christ whose very body was maimed, mutilated, mocked, and destroyed by political, worldly powers only to be raised up by God. Mary, the Mother of God, understood this truth in her own body, and before Jesus was born she sang out, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones… he has scattered the proud in their conceit… and the rich he has sent away empty.
Jesus Christ, as Lord of Lords, chose and chooses powers that the world mocks. He does not give into the temptation of ruling as emperor, or an empire that conquers by force, but rather as a servant who reveals the power of virtue in a song. In other words, Jesus’ choices of virtues are eternal. They outlast this kingdom or that kingdom revealing (again, in his very person) what the true kingdom is like. Let’s now turn to John the Baptist.
Preparing the Way
Preparing a way for this kingdom to come near is something John the Baptist showed others how to do. He does this in two ways, through repentance, and humility. John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He understood that part of the preparation process was making crooked roads straight, and getting one’s house in order. “Turn away from what you’re doing, and go another way – a way that is more holy awaits you”, he might have said. Furthermore, the very act of repentance that allows forgiveness to be accepted puts one in a state of humility. There’s a realization that, “my life is not all about me.” John showed this type of humility when he proclaimed, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John understood it was his gift to prepare a way for Christ in the hearts of his followers, and within his own heart in order to humbly receive God’s grace found in his Son. That’s the classic Advent message right there: to clean out one’s heart, to make room, and to welcome the Son of God coming into our lives.
So whether it’s a tangible act of resistance toward the State, or a cleaning out of one’s heart, may this season of Advent be for us a holiday counter to the culture, and when necessary, counter to selfish drives, and be a crucible toward setting out on the straight and narrow again as if for the first time.
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”.
A Theology of Advent
Things that are eternal – by definition – cannot pass away. Everything else does and will as Jesus reminds us today. In the opening lines of John’s Gospel, we are reminded that “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh”. The Word Made Flesh is none other than Christ, the eternal one. All things that were created were created through the Word. Put differently, all things were created through Christ. Heaven and earth were created through Christ; yet, they too will pass away. Why? Because God’s crea-tion can never be God – the Crea-tor. If we believe otherwise – that the created order is the same as God – we would be considered pagans. Instead, we are Christians, and the priority of Christ is front and center because Christ (the Word of God) will not pass away. With this beautiful theology and divine truth, we begin our journey through another season of Advent. Without this truth, we are lost in the dark – left to our faltering senses.
The Cycle of Darkness is a Cycle of Change
Darkness. This time of year there is more darkness than light. The days are short. The night is long. This too shall pass.
Change. This time of year deciduous trees shed their leaves while in the fir tree we recognize changelessness. Although these created things (i.e. light/dark; trees and their leaves) are indeed, normal; they are not eternal – so “keep awake”, says Jesus, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” Isn’t that just like God; that is, to come at us suddenly? It’s been said that life happens when we are making plans. Christ coming into the world was sudden, and there were only a few who were awake enough to receive him. Christ coming into the world in the future will be similar; yet the difference is that all will see him but not all will be gathered up; therefore keep awake.
How do we keep awake? How do we acknowledge the humbling truth that heaven and earth will pass away? The appropriate response is to focus, to practice, and to live into the eternal – those eternal things that will not pass away. When we practice these eternal virtues, we awaken more and more each day. We prepare our bodies, minds, and spirits to receive the love, life, and light found in the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord.
So let’s stay focused on Christ today. To help us, listen to this: For centuries the Church has traditionally found the symbols of “priest”, “prophet” and “king” as appropriate archetypes for describing Christ and his priority. Bishop Robert Barron in his new book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age describes the various archetypes attributed to Christ like this:
Christ as Priest
“The priest is the one who gives right praise. That’s the Biblical way of naming who we are. What goes wrong is that we praise the wrong things. Augustine said that too, that we end up worshipping creatures rather than the Creator. We become priests of the wrong god. From bad worship flows everything else, meaning the disintegration of the self, sin, violence, and so on.
Getting us back on track means we’re like Adam before the Fall…[Adam]’s a priest because he’s in the attitude of right worship. [One of the paintings] on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel [has] Eve [coming] forth from the side of Adam…she has her hands folded in an attitude of prayer. That’s humanity before the Fall; it knew how to worship right”.
Christ as Prophet
“Before the Fall, Adam names the animals, that is to say he catalogs them. He names them according to the Logos [Word] that God has placed in them. [Adam]’s not making up their meaning, he’s recognizing (re-cognizing, to use the term of Joseph Ratzinger). He’s thinking again what’s already been thought into them [by God], so he’s a prophet. From that prophecy, correct speech flows, the whole range of literature and science, philosophy, everything.”
Christ as King
“The idea of king is that Adam…is made to expand out. Now that Eden’s okay, let’s move out and turn the whole world into a place of right praise. What it gives you is the whole vocation of Israel. [Israel] is a priestly people, a prophetic people that knows the divine truth, and then, finally, a kingly people that will go on the march.
These vocations of priest, prophet, and king were not fully achieved until Christ, Barron argues. Barron says, [Christ], in his own person, is the place of right praise. It’s humanity turned to divinity. He’s not just the speaker of truth, he is the [Word] incarnate, so he’s prophet in the full sense. Then he’s king, because he’s going on the march to ‘Edenize’ the world, to ‘Christify’ the world. What goes wrong with us…is that we get all three of those things wrong. We worship the wrong things, we start making up our own meaning, and then we also privatize the faith. A restored focus on Christ…is the only exit strategy from those temptations.”
Re-Order Your Life around the Priority of Christ
Advent is the season to re-order our lives – not around ourselves – but around the eternal Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ. Doing anything else in this season deprives us of re-cognizing, or thinking again on the things that are eternal. Doing anything else puts to sleep those eternal longings that are tangibly felt and experienced during the mystery of Advent. Sure, it’s dark – but the light of Christ is eternal. Sure, things are changing – but what about the changelessness of God? Sure things are scary – but fear not, for Christ is with us. These are the teachings of Advent. These are the teachings of the Church that pour forth from the Divine Word of God – Jesus Christ.
This Advent, challenge yourself to re-organize your life around the priority of Christ coming into the world, then think on the things that are eternal. Think on, and then practice love, forgiveness, humility, patience, hope, joy, gratefulness, and compassion. Practicing these virtues of the Spirit helps prepare your hearts to keep awake, even as the rest of the world has fallen asleep dreaming of the wrong gods.
 This section describing Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King is a full quotation from the book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr., Image Publishing, New York, 2017, pgs. 101-102.