Incarnation and the End
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
December 30, 2018
First Sunday after Christmas
When we were in India this summer, one of the highlights, the chief reason for going, was to visit the tiny rural village of Umri where my grandparents had served for over a decade as medical missionaries. The village they lived in is still as tiny and poor as ever, but the clinic they reinvigorated adjacent to the town is now a thriving hospital with a complex of outpatient clinics, schools, staff residences, a church, and more.
Being there, in the flesh, was a profound experience. To stay in my mother’s childhood home, to smell the food cooking in the kitchen, to see the jasper studded dirt roads, and to recline on her front porch as she and her family did ages ago, was a dream come true. And, a highlight in the midst of that experience came as we were touring the hospital facility. We were visiting the patient records to marvel at their ancient rusted file cabinet storage system, when our guide opened a file and produced several patient records from the 1950s, each bearing the unmistakable scrawl of my grandfather’s handwriting. I’m not sure how many HIPPA violations that constituted, but, it was surprisingly moving to stand in a space where my grandfather had lived and served, to hold evidence of his work in my hands, to see his words on his paper, and to see the very real difference his life and service had made in the world. And, on top of this, or perhaps more accurately, just beneath the surface, was the profound sense of his bodily absence. How we all longed for more than just his words and signs of his work. How we yearned for him to be with us again in the flesh.
That yearning came back to me as I prepared for today’s sermon. For those of us that may have missed it on Christmas Day, the Episcopal Church’s lectionary unlike many of our ecumenical brothers and sisters, preserves John’s prologue twice in the Christmas season to ensure that we don’t miss it. John expounds the philosophical and theological mystery that we know as the Incarnation as he writes, “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.”
The Word became flesh. Such a simple summation with profound implications. Our yearning hearts desired more than just Wisdom from on high, more than human words on a page, more than laws to live by and instruction to help us grow. We yearned for more than tell-tale signs of God’s presence in the world around us, more than evidence of his handiwork in the creation and the cosmos. We yearned to know God, to be with God, in the here and now, in the flesh. And, God yearned for us too, and so he came to us and lived among us. That is the story, in part, as John tells it, of the profundity of Incarnation. And, it would be simple enough to stop here, to let the coziness of Christmas sweep us away as we bask in the glory as of a parent’s only child, the revelation of God’s very being in a beautiful sleeping child at his mother’s breast.
But, that is not the whole story of Incarnation. For we know just as I did in that record’s room, that to be in the flesh is to live with the ever present reality of loss. We know all too well that flesh and blood and bone wears out. Bodies have their moment, but all too soon they decay and disintegrate and we die. John seems to gloss over all this reality, even leaping over the timebound and historic realities that Luke seems eager to illumine with his infancy narrative. John seems content to tell us that in the beginning, in the sphere and realm of God, the Divine Wisdom was, and then, that sphere and realm of God collided with ours, with the created order, and the Word became flesh.
One is left to ponder, what of Incarnation? As Mary lay snuggling her newborn son, she must’ve known all the terrible and wonderful truth that fleshly existence means. In one of the most profound essays of 2018, in the Paris Review, author Claudia Dey writes of the complicated truth of motherhood. To be a mother, she says, is to become even more painfully and clearly attuned to the presence of death. Children drain away our hours and our energy, making us feel our mortality more completely than before. But, so too she tells us, for a mother to bring life into the world is to become divided, to see the other life, a piece of her outside of herself, and to see all the risk and calamity hurtling its way. She writes:
“No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child—this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.”
So, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are haunted by this reality. Just as he is born, so we know, come what may, this Son of God and son of Mary must eventually die. His story, like all of ours, is written with the end already assumed. And so, the season of the Incarnation is haunted by death. Only three days after the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the feast of Holy Innocents, our yearly retelling of that horrible outcome of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod orders the killing of all boys 2 years and younger in the region around Bethlehem. I’m always struck by the incongruity of that feast as it falls in the season of Christmas, when our culture insists our hearts be full of mirth and our minds focused on all things merry and bright. And, I am doubly reminded of this incongruity, because Holy Innocents is also shared with the celebration of my youngest son’s birthday. As the two fall together, I can’t help each year looking on in pride and joy whilst silently praying back all the dangers and hurts the world might throw his way.
But, Holy Innocents, falling as it does in this season of Incarnation also reminds us that death haunts the vulnerable and powerless most of all. Yes, death is an inevitability, but, as with the life of Jesus, death comes earlier to those who live on the margins. Then as now, mortality seems amplified and somehow closer at hand for those whose lives have been deemed less important by the empire, by the powerful. To be immigrant, queer, a woman, a person of color, is to sense all too painfully and profoundly the fragility of our bodies and the presence of death.
In one way, this is the deeper and perhaps even comforting truth of Christmas, that God not only understands our fleshly existence, has lived it with us, but, that God’s solidarity extends even unto death, and outward to those most vulnerable in our world. God is with us, and God is especially with those whose bodies and lives are always in danger of being crushed under the wheels of power, by those with privilege or a badge or a gun or a bigger bank account. God’s solidarity extends most especially there and invites our solidarity there too!
But, incarnation is even more than solidarity. Just as Incarnation brings the sphere of God crashing into the sphere of things created, just as it means God with us, so too it holds wonderful possibility about our reality being drawn more deeply into God’s, it means us with God! We yearned to be with God, and so God came to us. But, God yearned for us to be with God too, and so draws us to Godself in this act! In the Incarnation are the very first rumbles of a coming revolution and revelation. In this profound act of joining and being with, God inaugurates the beginning of the end. Death is being unraveled from the inside. If the wood of the manger foreshadows the wood of the cross, then the Incarnation also foreshadows the Resurrection wherein the power of God overcomes the power of death, where the mighty are truly cast down from their seats, and the poor and humble are lifted up. As John says this morning, “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…The word became flesh and dwelt among us!” We have become children of God.
Amen and Amen!