Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A homily for the morning of Christmas Day 2014

St John’s Episcopal Church, Salisbury, Connecticut

Christmas Morning 2014

Christmas morning is Christmas for grownups. We read St Luke’s immortal story last night. This morning, however, there are no sheep, no multitude of angels, no manger with cows and donkeys. This morning we get Christian doctrine. If you think that sounds scary, how about this: someone has called Christmas “the Feast of Nicene dogma.”

And yet you have been singing Christian doctrine in the hymns and carols, perhaps without fully realizing it. The second verse of “O come, all ye faithful” is pure Nicene doctrine. The council of Nicaea in the year 325 determined that Jesus Christ was “God of God, Light of light, begotten not created” (those are the words I memorized as a child; the “new” hymnal isn’t quite as clear as the “old” one was). The Council of Nicaea taught us that Jesus was not just “like” God; he was God. He was “begotten, not created.” That is the one and only way that Jesus is not like us. He became one of us, and he was like us in every respect but this one: He was not “created” like us. He was “begotten” of the Father “before all worlds” and therefore “of one substance with the Father.” We’ll try to say something about why this is so important.

The hymns and carols are beloved, but some of the more modern ones are pretty sentimental. We can learn so much more about our faith by paying attention to the words of the older and better ones. Here is hymn # 82, written in Latin not long after the Council of Nicaea—that should give us goosebumps. It begins, “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be…”

We read the famous prologue of John’s gospel just now: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This isn’t the time to go into detail about the profound Old Testament concept of the Word of God, except to note that it’s indispensable. God went out from himself in his Word to Moses and the prophets, and then in New Testament times God went out from himself in his Son Jesus Christ: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Then in the second reading, from Hebrews, we hear the exact same thing that John says: “Through him [that is, the Son] God made the universe.” You sometimes hear people say that we are co-creators with God. That’s not biblical. The only "co-creators" are God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The great choreographer George Balanchine knew this. He insisted that he was not a “creator.” “God has already created everything. I only arrange.” Jesus is uniquely of one substance with the Father in being the unique Creator.

A great deal is said, and said rightly, at Christmastime about the humility of God the Son in becoming a helpless infant. This can’t be said too often or too emphatically. The readings for Christmas Eve emphasize the vulnerability of God coming into the world as the child of a poor family of lowly status in the world. That's a very important part of the gospel message. But this morning, the readings emphasize something else. They emphasize the identity of the baby Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God, the Word of God made flesh.

We’re going to sing “Hark, the herald angels sing” in a few minutes. I’d like to try to show you how superbly the words of Charles Wesley illuminate the gospel and celebrate the identity of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.

First, here are a few verses from the prophet Malachi, which are strategically placed on the last page of the Old Testament. These are the last bits of Scripture before the birth of Christ as told in the first chapter of Matthew. This is a different arrangement from the Jewish Bible. In the Christian Bible, we have the same books, but they are arranged differently for a very significant reason: to make the end of Old Testament dovetail with the beginning of the New.

In chapter 3 of Malachi, we read verses made famous by Handel in his Messiah:
Behold…, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you delight in…But who can abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire…
Then at the very end, Malachi prophesies this:
For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts...But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings...on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
Now listen to the words of “Hark! the herald angels sing,” one of Charles Wesley’s most inspired biblical hymns. In the first two verses he identifies “the newborn” infant as a King, but more, a King who is “pleased” to dwell with us even though he is the “incarnate Deity,” “veiled in flesh.” Then the last verse begins this way: “Mild he lays his glory by” [that’s from Philippians 2, but we won’t pause there today]. Let’s go on to see what Wesley does with Malachi. He makes a pun on the word “sun,” meaning sun as celestial body—as in Malachi’s “sun of righteousness”—and “Son” as in “Son of God.” He weaves Malachi’s prophecy into his hymn in this way:

Risen with healing in his wings,
Light and life to all he brings,
Hail, the sun [Son] of righteousness,
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

Now what difference does all this make? Is this just innocuous words sung to a favorite tune?

On this day, the grownups know that Christmas is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Not everything is merry and bright. The secular Christmas songs tell us things like this:  “from now on your troubles will be out of sight,” but “Blue Christmas” is more like it for many people. Year after year, this is the reality of our lives. We live with loss, disappointment, mortality. But the “feast of Nicene dogma” tells us something entirely different, something that comes to us as a Word from another realm altogether.  The daily news has been as bad, this year, as any news I remember in my entire adult life. This is the power of Sin and Death, as St Paul calls it, and we have no ability in ourselves to overcome that power. But the incarnate Son of God has entered the world from another sphere of power. Sin and Death have no dominion over him. The Sun of righteousness has "healing in his wings." He is our sun, the light of our life; he is also the Son of God, the Word made flesh. If he is not, if the doctrine of the incarnation were not true, then the world would continue on a downward spiral until we destroy ourselves, and we would be in our sins for all eternity. The news of Christmas is that God himself has entered our history with the power to reverse this course. This is the promise. This is the hope. This is the meaning of “the day when God acts.” The Son of righteousness will arise, and the shadows will flee away, and it will be bright morning for ever.

Hail, thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption's happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

--"See amid the winter's snow," by Edward Caswall (1814-1878)  


Monday, December 01, 2014

Bet you didn't know this!

I've become a maniacal Trollope devotee in my old age (OK, "young old") after a friend of my husband's gave me Barchester Towers. I thought I'd better begin at the beginning so I read The Warden first and was hooked for life. How odd that my mother, who was reading Dickens at age six (no exaggeration) never to my knowledge read Trollope. He wasn't in fashion then.

Anyway, while waiting for the rest of the Barchester Chronicles to come in at my indie bookstore, I read The Way We Live Now. What a terrific book. I kept saying to myself, this is about Bernie Madoff. After I'd thought that a dozen times, I went to Google, typed in "Augustus Melmotte Bernie Madoff" and bingo!  All kinds of people have made that connection.

So naturally, after I read it, I ordered the BBC videos of The Way We Live Now. I was immediately thrilled with David Suchet as Melmotte. What a superb performance! Melmotte to the life! wasn't long before I Googled David Suchet. Not being particularly an Agatha Christie fan, I hadn't seen his complete repertoire as Poirot. Don't miss Suchet's charming and touching reflections about Poirot; it's all there on the Wikipedia entry about Suchet. It definitely makes me want to see some of the Poirot performances, and one can't help admiring Suchet for his insights.

And now...are you ready for this? The Wikipedia article (yeah, I know, Wiki is not entirely dependable, but...) tells of his background as a Jew of mixed extraction and his nonreligious upbringing. Then it goes on to say,

Raised without religion, in 1986, Suchet underwent a religious conversion after reading Romans 8 in a hotel Bible; soon afterwards, he was baptised into the Church of England. Suchet stated in an interview with Strand Magazine, "I'm a Christian by faith. I like to think it sees me through a great deal of my life. I very much believe in the principles of Christianity and the principles of most religions, actually—that one has to abandon oneself to a higher good."[31] In 2012, Suchet made a documentary for the BBC on his personal hero, Saint Paul, to discover what he was like as a man by charting his evangelistic journey around the Mediterranean.[32]On 22 November 2012, the British Bible Society announced the appointment of David Suchet and Dr Paula Gooder as new vice-presidents. They joined the existing vice-presidents:John Sentamu (Archbishop of York), Vincent Nichols (Archbishop of Westminster), Barry Morgan (Archbishop of Wales), David F. Ford (Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge),Joel Edwards (International Director of Micah Challenge) and Lord Alton of Liverpool. 

Romans 8! St Paul! I think this amazing story will send us all back to that great chapter. And never underestimate the power of those hotel Bibles.

It's nice to know that Suchet was named an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) by the Queen in 2002 and promoted to CBE (Commander of...) in 2012.