Sermon for Christmas Day 2020.
It has been a most unusual year. It is only fitting then, that we begin our Christmas Day worship with the start of the most unusual of the four gospels in the Christian scriptures. While only Matthew and Luke mention anything about Jesus’s birth, Mark begins with events within human history, even if Mark starts with Jesus already being grown. The author of John’s gospel, the last of the gospels to be written, decides to take us back much further in time--- in fact before the beginning of time itself, before human memory, to the start of creation. To the luminous, fertile darkness that was the womb of God’s creative energy and initiative.
For Christmas Day, after hearing the beautiful account of Jesus’s birth from the gospel of Luke last night, we instead hear the beginning of John’s gospel. John’s gospel begins with linking Jesus with the very act of creation. If in the beginning, God was creating, therefore, God was also redeeming.
And indeed, we put a lot of pressure on beginnings. Start out on the wrong path, and by the time you realize it, you are so far off course that the trip may be hopeless. At a beginning of a relationship, everything is fresh, and no one takes the regard of the other for granted, or lets their warts hang out for all to see or acts contemptuous. Consideration is at an all-time high. We treat each other gently, investing in listening, attentiveness, and generosity.
Christmas was placed in the Christian calendar centuries ago not in the spring, when it probably occurred, but just after the time of the Winter Solstice, which can occur anywhere from December 21 to December 23, whenever here in the Northern hemisphere the North Pole is tilted the furthest away from the sun, resulting in the longest night of the year.
On that day, we only have nine hours and 28 minutes of daylight. Once we round the corner of the solstice, we start tacking on minutes at both sunrise and sunset, and the days begin the creep ever longer. Already, here we are 4 days after the solstice this year, and we have added four minutes of daylight—two at sunrise, and two at sunset. The Solstice was celebrated before Christianity as the rebirth of the light—and our gospel we hear today firmly links Jesus with the birth of light as well.
Thus even the earth proclaims the birth of the light again, after months of shortening days. We Christians sometimes ignore the physical proclamation at this time of year of the return of light into our lives. Most of us, living in a post-modern world, have long ago lost touch with the vital importance of the turning of the seasons. We do not anxiously search the skies for signs of when to plant, when to harvest.
But this year, we did have a wonderful excuse to look to the skies during this week leading up to Christmas—the much anticipated reappearance of the so-called “Christmas star” which is actually the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, two of the largest planets in our solar system. This sight appears ever 20 years, but for the first time in 800 years, this Great Conjunction happened very near the winter solstice—and Christmas.
The last time this happened, Parisien artisans were building the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. We can imagine their awe as they looked up in the early hours of Christmas morning—and just for once, people all across North America stepped out together to look up at the sky in awe, and remember the story of another time that people saw this light blaze in the sky, and associated it with the birth of a baby who would grow to become the center of billions of people’s hopes and dreams.
Even today, people imagine that the “stars” are portents of events in their lives—even if those stars are comets, or, in this case, planets reflecting the light of the Sun back at us. This year, in the midst of this pandemic, we have been blessed with a reminder of the wonder of the coming of Jesus into the world right up in the sky above our heads. What is usually not even noticed has become a gateway to awe and wonder. And that is a beautiful metaphor for the birth of Jesus if ever there was one.
Now, misleadingly, this year’s “Christmas star” wasn’t in the east. Here in St. Louis it was actually in the southwest for us. Jupiter and Saturn’s conjunction, visible to the naked eye but even better with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, was a living reminder that there actually WAS a star that noticeably and suddenly “appeared” at the time of Christ’s birth. And if you missed seeing it, Jupiter and Saturn are still close enough that you will notice how together they make a brighter object in the sky than they ever could accomplish apart. Rather than making the appearance of the Christmas star LESS magical, our knowledge reminds us of the importance of how we as a community of faith can both magnify each others’ light, but also by our actions lead others to Christ, as humble as we are.
In a year in which we have been separated from the ones we love by the fear of this pandemic, that leading us from dwelling on our separation to our essential unity is a precious reminder, indeed, and much needed. But perhaps the next fact can provide some consolation about the powerlessness of physical distance to truly keep anyone separate. Because here is another fact about the so-called “closeness” of Jupiter and Saturn in the sky: they really aren’t close at all. It is only from our perspective that they appear to draw close.
In reality, Jupiter and Saturn are actually 456 million miles apart. That’s not exactly adjacent. The truth is, this celestial show only works if all THREE of our planets are in alignment. Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are lined up right now. The seeing of this celestial event only happens when we ourselves are in the correct place, with our faces turned toward the darkness, outward. And it is only by the gift of darkness that we can see this light. Darkness and light work together in partnership. During the day, the blazing of this planetary alignment is veiled from our eyes.
The first words of the Gospel of John are the same ones as begin the Bible in Genesis: “In the beginning…” This is deliberate—and also places layers of layers of meaning for our enlightenment. This is the beginning of the Gospel. It echoes the beginning of Genesis, which means “Beginning.” Yet this beginning in John 1 is BEFORE the beginning in Genesis, which does not appear in the prologue until verse 3. John’s beginning roots God’s word, which we understand as Jesus, as existing before creation and thus before the beginning of time.
There is no nativity story in John’s gospel filled with angels and shepherds and cattle. The Word of God, Jesus, does not even become flesh until our final verse, verse 14. Instead, there is a philosophical, mystical song of the Word being rooted not in human time and experience but before creation—indeed as the agent of creation. This Word is described as God’s partner in creation and is strongly associated with creation itself, especially bearing life and light into the universe, much as Wisdom was described in the book of Proverbs.
Some might argue that this gospel reading we hear takes us too far away from our focus on Bethlehem and a little baby born in the humblest of circumstances, lying in a manger surrounded by animals and shepherds. Calling Jesus “the Word of God” is so… impersonal. Dehumanized. And Christmas is the pre-eminent celebration of the incarnation—of God taking on human flesh. But John also refers to Jesus as “the light.” The light about which John the Baptist will testify and point toward, the same way that star we saw in the sky is described as leading shepherds and Wise men to the humble scene of a young family with a brand new baby.
I am convinced that we are being reminded about how our closeness, our love, the light we shine into the world as disciples of Jesus, has nothing to do with physical proximity. We ourselves can blaze with love, which is the true light of Christ, even while we stay socially distant—and indeed, that distancing provides us with the perspective to see how unified we really are. Here in the time of darkness, we celebrate a rekindling of light—the light of God. May we look with awe and wonder on the joy of the newborn Christ-child, the Son of God entering time, taking on human flesh, opening a new way for God to be revealed to us and to show us the way to live into our full potential as humans. For many of us, that is indeed the best beginning of them all.