The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas Day—Year B; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14
Last night, we received the gift. This morning, by the light of day, we start to unwrap it, unpack it, pick it up and look at it from every conceivable angle, trying to understand what made our hearts leap last night.
Today, as in the beginning, the Word pierces the quiet and all creation reverberates with God’s own self. No one has ever said it more beautifully than John in the prologue to his Gospel—chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God poured into every fiber of creation. And that incredible crescendo at verse 14, “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.”
Word made flesh. Incarnation. God revealed in human flesh; God revealed in our flesh; our flesh dripping with divinity. Incarnation—that mystery of mysteries that is so hard to comprehend; so hard to wrap our minds around. It is enough that our hearts get it, but our minds yearn to plumb the depths, and on this Christmas morn, in the clear light of day, it sure seems we ought to at least try.
So, strap in for the ride. I’ve chosen Cynthia Bourgeault to guide us. What follows is an extended reading from her chapter on The Incarnation in her book The Wisdom Jesus.
From a God’s-eye view of creation, the real operational challenge is not sin and evil; it is posed by the vastly unequal energetic frequencies between the realms. How can the sun touch a snowflake? How can the divine radiance meet and interpenetrate created life without incinerating it? This is the ultimate metaphysical koan—to which Christianity proposes as its solution the mystery of the incarnation.
This realization, in turn, opens up a whole new line of insight into John’s statement, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The Son, in this wider metaphysical context, is no longer the one who bails us out or who rescues us from our fallen state but the one who becomes our bridge between the realms. Recognizing the enormous difficulty of our mission, Jesus comes to accompany us on it, advocating for our human finitude in a way that respects its integrity but doesn’t allow us to get trapped in it. As in the traditional theological understanding (but with a very different flavor), he becomes our meditator. Standing at the confluence of the two vastly different orders of being, he offers his own life as the sanctuary between them.
As we have seen already, these great metaphysical paradoxes lend themselves more easily to poetry and metaphor than to the theological scalpel. One of the classic images Christian mystics have used to portray this cosmic mediation is actually very ancient, from the Old Testament. In the book of Exodus (3:1-6) the story is told of how Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep in the Midianite wilderness, suddenly comes upon a bush fully engulfed in flame and yet miraculously intact. The miracle is quickly revealed as an angel of God speaking through the flame. But for the Christian desert hermits later inhabiting that same wilderness, the burning bush became a symbol of Jesus himself: all flame, yet perfectly intact within his finite container. And there were those among that desert fellowship who yearned for that same incandescent ground. In one of the most famous of the desert parables:
Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Bourgeault continues: Would it be possible for us, too, to “become all flame”? Could our own lives become such a perfect fusion of infinite love and finite form that light would pour from our being as an actual physical radiance? I have indeed seen this light in more than a few realized masters toward the end of their earthly journeys; it is the fully revealed mystery of human life lived as conscious sacrament. How we get there is the secret Jesus will unfold for us through the course of his own consciously sacramental life. But our first step in joining him on this journey is to recognize that his incarnation is not about fall, guilt, or blame, but about goodness, solidarity, and our own intimate participation in the mystery of love at the heart of all creation.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” inside of us, the perfect fusion of infinite love and finite form, the light that shines in the darkness, which darkness cannot overcome, mediating between the realms, showing us how we “can become all flame.”
This mystery isn’t just a gift to be unwrapped, played with for a bit, and put on a shelf to collect dust; this mystery puts our whole human endeavor on an entirely different footing. Your flesh is holy, my flesh is holy, all flesh is holy. You life is holy, my life is holy, all life is holy. Infinite love has been fused with our finite form. Our work is to live our lives as a conscious sacrament of this greatest of mysteries. Our work is to always be unwrapping the gift of our lives to reveal the mystery of love.
As far as you can be about this work, and then, like Jesus, “if you will, you can become all flame.”
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 25, 2014