A very Merry Christmas to you all! What does that mean to you? Merry isn’t just a full belly, a bottomless glass, and a few ‘ho, ho, hos.’ Merry comes from Germanic roots that mean ‘short,’ and in Old English it meant pleasant or sweet. Merry is how time flies when you’re having fun – or life is especially sweet. Being merry is a taste of eternity; it’s timeless or outside of time. A Merry Christmas is about abiding joy and the true meaning of Christmas.
We rejoice again today – and every year – in the birth of God in human flesh. The depth of joy may bring us to an awareness that is beyond these minutes or the years of our lives. We know those sweet and timeless encounters – gazing into the eyes of a loved one; cradling a newborn; awe at the wonder of the stars in a midnight sky or a sunset. Those un-timed occasions are almost always about love, for love liberates us from the world’s anxiety. Merry-makers don’t count the hours; they are not anxious.
The Christmas story we hear this morning is not the familiar tale of the babe in a manger. John’s story of love in the flesh is a cosmic tale, told through different lens than Luke’s. Luke’s story of God in the flesh takes place in a very specific time and place, yet with meaning that moves far beyond the year of Caesar Augustus’ first census, when Quirinius was governor in Syria. John’s story looks back, beyond time, to before the created order emerged, telling of God’s love before time began. In the beginning was the Word – the dynamic, effective and creative breath of God – before anything could be seen or touched. That God-Word, and only that God-Word, gives life, and life becomes light.
There is another story that tells of that reality as the Big Bang, and it, too, is ALL about light and creativity. Those two stories are not in conflict, nor are Luke’s and John’s. Love has brought into being all that is, and humanity has always striven to understand and welcome that love.
John’s gospel tells of a human being, an advance man for Jesus, telling about the God-Word-light coming in human flesh – John the Baptizer wasn’t light itself, but he pointed to that incarnate light that would unfold and flare forth in Jesus. Isaiah dreamed of that light as a messenger with beautiful feet coming over the mountains with news of peace and healing and justice. At Christmas, we are once again reminded that God is among us in human flesh, bringing light into darkness, light that will never be quenched by the dark.
Where have you seen that light, where have you rejoiced in time-stopping peace, where have you found love that never ends? What Word keeps resounding in your heart, but Love?
Those encounters come to us in our time, yet they also invite us to let go of time and the anxiety that comes with measuring the length of our days. That invitation lies beneath the prayer we began with – make us joyful to receive our Redeemer, and at the end of our earthly days, help us meet that same Word with confidence as our Judge. There can be merriment in both, if we live with Love in our hearts. Love promises constancy through health and sickness, abundance and poverty, joy and sorrow, and Love will be there at our ending – and beyond. Love is meant to be the sum of our lives, an expanding sum that cosmically outshines darkness.
There’s a lovely old rabbinical story about a student who is fiercely wound up about his inability to keep the law in its fullness. He’s deeply worried that he isn’t living a righteous life. The rabbi counsels him, “when you come to judgment, there will be only one question, ‘did you enjoy everything God gave you to enjoy?’”
That counsel is about setting aside anxiety, and entering into the timelessness of true joy. We will meet our judge with confidence if our hearts have made a home for Love itself. As the Word of Love resides in a person’s heart, it shapes both actions and dreams. John the baptizer pointed to that possibility as making a U-turn, back toward life in God, drenched in a life of love. Jesus became that life in human flesh.
Where have you seen that light in human flesh? How have you abided in joy – or been merry?
I saw that light the Sunday before last, and I’m still merry. Three people came into church just before it started. One was about 6’4” and had a long, luscious, lavender wig under her hat. She arrived with two other women, an older woman with a gorgeous singing voice, and a younger woman who nervously blurted out loud words every few minutes. A parishioner went up and greeted her tall friend, Raeanna, with a hug when they arrived. As the service went on, Raeanna would bend down and tend the anxious one. Several times she went out with Cindy until she calmed down and they returned. I had coffee and cookies with them afterward. All three are homeless, and Raeanna had invited the other two to come join her at church. She said she’d been homeless since she transitioned, and talked about the difficulty of finding a job – she’s either overqualified or not called back once people meet her in the flesh. Yet there is a deep fund of joy within her. In the middle of coffee hour, two guys in their 70s came up to talk to her about their shared experience as Navy veterans, and hugged her at the end of the conversation. There was light abundant that morning – in a whole lot of hearts – and we were merry for having seen and known that light.
The Word of God is alive in human flesh – in the newest infant, incapable of doing anything except needing the love of others. The Word of Love is planted in the newest heart, to grow and shed light to all. God’s Word is in each one here, in grace and truth, from the youngest to the oldest. The light that shines in our hearts may be masked by worry or despair, yet the smallest spark can be calmed and revealed and fueled into shimmering grace by Love. Remember to rest in that seed of joy; it will grow and it will push back the dark.
God keep you merry, friends, deeply joyful in the Love of God, resting in that light and radiating it through the hours and the years. A merry Christmas to you, today and every day, your whole life long.
May the Love in you light up the world!
The Right Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Christmas Day 2018
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego, 10:30 am
Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14