The Rev’d. Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
December 25, 2015
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What Child is this, who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!(1)
What child is this? is a question for all of us. Our answers change as we grow older—as we see the world through eyes of wisdom and experience.
Our understandings surely begin with the readings from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. We hear of a baby born to a young couple who had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the lowliest of settings, a stable. It’s surprising, though, to hear about those who came to see the baby, to lay gifts before him. There were shepherds told by angels to go to Bethlehem and wise men, Maji, led to his feet by a star.
So we have a child far from home honored by unexpected guests. A descendant of the house of David as foretold in Hebrew scripture, son of David, born in the City of David, Messiah and Lord
Yet the question remains--perhaps an even a stronger question than before--who is this child, Jesus? Having heard both the practical descriptions of the fulfillment of the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story about the baby born so long ago in Luke, we come today to a different birth story. In the Gospel of John we come to an entirely different perspective on that holy birth.
In the beginning was the Word... We move to a deeper level, to the level of incarnation, of creation, of mystery. They are beyond our understanding, yet they are words that explain this Jesus. The words of today’s reading from the Gospel of John are an early Christian hymn, a Christmas hymn, probably from the community for which the Gospel was written. (2) Jesus is the Word, existing before time, present and active in creation, one with God, actually God, who became human in Jesus.
God, understood to be remote, transcendent, communicating with the world through the Word.
God became human in Jesus. As the Word, Jesus brought us greater understanding of God.
The hymn begins by equating the Word, Jesus, with God. The Word is God. The first three stanzas describe Jesus, the Word. Comments about John the Baptist are added in two places. The fourth stanza--turns to the first person plural, "we". The Word became flesh and came to dwell among us. We have seen his glory and received his grace. We hear of Word made flesh, light overcoming darkness, receiving grace upon grace. (3)
Quite different from the understandings of the gospels of Luke and Matthew, this description is evocative of the Spirit. It uses imagery rather than facts. It evokes mystery. It’s important that we see the mystery as well as the more concrete stories and descriptions of his life. Mystery rests deeply in the incarnation, in God becoming human. A mystery our minds cannot encompass. A God our minds cannot comprehend.
For a long time I struggled with these questions about God, about Jesus, about the suffering of humanity. Everyone I asked had answers that were illusive, not the concrete understanding I thought I needed. I realized many things, yet I began to be able to rest in the mystery, to use the mystery, the questions, to help me understand God. I came to see that God and mystery are one.
If everything is explained and understood, everything wrapped up in a neat bundle and tied with a bow, we lose so much in the process. We never know that awe and wonder of the infinite, of the God who speaks in silence, of the God who is light in the darkness of our world, of the God whose miracles ring throughout history. If everything we need to know is set forth in black and white for us to understand, we lose the depth of God’s meaning in our lives.
So many images in the Gospel of John deepen my understanding of Jesus and of God: I am the bread of life. I am the vine, you are the branches. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth and the life. When you and I take those images into our prayer and reflection God becomes real to us. We can see God acting in our lives.
We live today in a world of much darkness: Among peoples: war, killings, threats, fear, intimidation. In creation: melting ice, deserts expanding, creatures moving toward extinction. Yet God is always with us: light in that darkness, hope overcoming despair, revelation overcoming illusion. God is always breaking into our certainties, God is always overturning our expectations. As Margaret Silf writes: God is the turning point in all our nights.(4)
And so we find ourselves surrounded by this mystery, held up by it in our brokenness. We find ourselves joined to each other through this mystery. We find ourselves supported and strengthened through God and through those connections which are possible through God.
We know God’s love through the impact of this mystery on our suffering, on our pain. This love doesn’t just enfold us and let us feel good all the time. This love lets us question our long held beliefs. This love challenges us to go deeper. It leads us to new understandings and new experiences.
Some say that God comes in the pauses between the action in our lives. I would say that God comes to lead us to the next idea, to the next action. How this happens and that it happens through you and me is mystery as well.
When I was a child I used to love to read mysteries. After a while I’d read a Nancy Drew novel in a day. As I got older I devoured books filled with mysteries—always seeing if I could discover the key, the solution before it was revealed on the page. Solving each mystery was the goal of my reading.
In the beginning was the Word…These words describe mystery, as they describe God. This isn’t a mystery to be solved. Rather than trying to take it apart and put it back together again, this mystery is something for us to behold in all its beauty and power. God is a mystery to explore like a deep almost limitless cave.
What child is this? The answer will always be grounded in mystery. Let us find rest in the mystery of the Word made flesh. Let us be moved to action by the challenge and energy of this most miraculous gift.
(1) What Child is this? Words: William Dix, 1865. Music: 16th Century English melody, from What Child Is This? (John 1:1-18) by Bob Deffinbaugh, Th.M.
(2) Gustafson, Henry. Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson, Gospel for Christmas Day: John 1:1-14. from No Other Foundation, Summer 1998, pp. 5-10. Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ.
(3) Brown, Raymond The Anchor Bible: John I-XII. New York: Doubleday Books, 1966, pp. 3-37.
(4) Silf, Margaret Lighted Windows. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004, p. 97.