First Sunday after Christmas

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas, Sunday, December 27 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Just a few days after Christmas, the gospel gives us one of the very few stories have from the early life of Jesus. But before we get to that, I want to look at that thought expressed today in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, this idea of being God’s children, of what it might mean, of how it might unfold in our lives; and how it relates to the infant who is brought now into the Temple by his parents.

God’s children—God’s children by adoption, Paul suggests; by a process which makes us into something new, which forms us as part of a reality we did not immediately inhabit. We are God’s good creatures by birth, part of the beloved creation, part of God’s working. But to be a child, the earliest Christian writers seem to agree, is something more than that. It is not something into which we are immediately born, but a reality into which we enter by deliberate action, a remaking of the given into newness.

But it is a strange adoption, because it is made, not in the first instance by God taking us into God’s reality, but the divine entering, entirely and unprotected, into ours. By God, God in all fullness, the infinity of the divine life, entering our world of meat and dirt and matter as a human baby, God becoming a part of our family. God having a particular mother and father, who are ordinary, who are small-town labourers, poor people—today’s story makes that clear, because when they come to the Temple, they make the small offering prescribed for a poor family, for people can’t afford the proper offering for a firstborn son. God in a tiny helpless body, hungry, crying. The divine I AM carried in ordinary human arms, incapable of walking on the earth which God spoke into being. The unimaginably great bending down to our smallness.

And because of this, for all of us, who have all been helpless, who have all been sometime carried and fed by others, the life of God is opened up. We are named and re-named, clothed with beauty, not only good creatures, but also the very place of God’s personal being. We are made into God’s own prayer.

There is, of course, more to be revealed about the child from Nazareth, and in our reading today, two strange elderly figures hint at what that will be. One of the striking things about the early chapters of Luke’s gospel is how much goes on in and around the Temple; uniquely among the gospels, Luke gives us a picture of a complex and lively Temple community, to which the family of Jesus is significantly connected. Zechariah is serving in the Temple, offering incense in a busy ceremony carefully described, when he encounters an angel and is struck dumb. Later, we will learn that Jesus’ family travelled to the Temple every year, and we will hear the story of Jesus as a boy debating the elders there. The Temple, for Luke, is a place of liturgy, life and prophecy, a busy place filled with all sorts and conditions of humanity. It is poignant to think of this, when our churches are mostly closed, and our common life, though it continues, is diminished in its variety. It is maybe especially important, this year, to hear about the Temple characters of this story.

Simeon, an old man who has wandered into the Temple under the influence of the Spirit, is evidently one of those people who hangs around holy places bursting out with inconvenient statements. Anna, a widow who has spent most of her life in the Temple precints, is one of the invisible, devoted women. Theyare both familiar figures, then and now. Worn-down outsiders, embodied history, they tell us that this child is, amazingly, something finally new. That his life will be, in some way, the fulfillment of promises made by God, and not only for the people of Israel, the people into whom he has been born, but all people, the whole of humanity.

And this will not be an easy or a painless thing. Simeon’s first song is filled with imagery of light, but as he continues to speak, it becomes more ambiguous, with a darker edge. There will be rising, but also falling. There will be opposition, difficulty. Our souls will be torn open, the things we have hidden even from ourselves will be revealed. And there will be pain, not only for this child but for those who love him.

We know to some extent, as indeed the author of Luke’s gospel knew, where the story of this child’s life will lead—the stories of teaching, healing, eating with outcasts, the suggestions of conflict or at least confusion within his family. We know that he was rejected in his own town, at odds with the authorities of the day. There are stories of the chaotic night waters calmed, of thousands of hungry people fed on the green grass by the lake. We know that he would finally be tortured and killed by an alliance of political and religious powers, and that early in the morning Mary Magdalene would meet him again in the garden, Peter and John would find him frying up a fish breakfast on a deserted lakeshore. And we might know, too, that it was never meant to end there, that it is a story which declares itself to be going on still, within us, within our lives and our communities.

We are called into that greater life hinted at in the garden and on the lakeshore, that reconciliation of all things which Isaiah and the author of the book of Revelation both try to express, that remaking of self and world. We will be jewels in God’s hand, and it will be like a garden, and it will be like a tree, and it will be like eating grilled fish with a friend at dawn after working all night. Human metaphors fail. We know not what we may be; what we may be has not yet been revealed; it is more than our minds can hold onto, except perhaps for brief moments of song, of prayer, of love. But that open space lies before us, and we can move into it, towards that greater life.

It will not be easy to get there—it will involve the tearing open of our souls, it will mean bringing to light all the things in our hearts and our personal and social histories which we would rather hide, and facing them, and letting God remake them into good, somehow. And it means letting ourselves be changed, perhaps radically changed, in the slow, stumbling healing of these things. But we are asked to survive. To see through the pain, through the sword in our hearts, to the possibility beyond.

“God became human,” said the early church father Athanasius, “so that humanity might become God.” It is that profound, the change to which we are called. But the God whose being we can more and more put on, the God whose life we can more and more experience within ourselves, is not a God of power or domination, not a God of special purity, not a God of separation. It is the God who is an infant, who is an ordinary man walking the dusty roads of small towns, who is a guest at the table, who allows the hands of power to kill him because he knows that power is never the final word, that there is always love beyond violence. The light in the dawn garden. God carried in the arms of humanity, humanity carried in the arms of God, we open ourselves to life at last.