Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Word Became Flesh

Thanks to Bishop Doyle for his thoughts and words....

"The Word became flesh and lived among us."  
            St. Augustine said that we are Easter people, and that "Alleluia is our song." I believe that we are also Christmas people, and as our altar hanging says, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” or "Glory to God in the Highest" is also our song. Who am I to amend a statement by the man who laid the foundation of theology in the Middle Ages and forever since?
            Why do I say that we are Christmas people? Well, though the celebration of Easter preceded the celebration of Christmas by centuries, and despite the fact that American Puritans considered it a pagan festival and outlawed it, and in spite of the obvious secularization of this holy day, I suspect that most devout Christians find our hearts strangely warmed by the thought of the babe in the manger, and its message is a very unique one.
            Every religion has had to deal with questions of the relationship between God and creation: Who we are in relation to the Creator? And then there is the big question of what happens after we die. For some religions, it is an escape from the bonds of the flesh, for some it is the Resurrection of the body. Plato thought that disembodied souls lived on. The Christian celebration of Easter says something very specific. And, in my experience and study of other religious traditions, I have never found any other that believed in the Incarnation quite the way Christians do.
            The closest might be the Hindus: their god, Vishnu is believed to have appeared on earth many times, including his incarnations as Prince Rama, and Krishna, of whom you may have heard. But these incarnations, what the Hindus call “avatars” never quite get their feet dusty, they never really leave their divine glory behind. They are never as human as you and me.
            This is one of the places where Christianity goes beyond other traditions:  God is not simply manifest in the natural world, nor simply in the human heart, but, in the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, we read, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” And, from the Gospel of John we hear these words: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” It is this that makes Christianity so different. It is also something, ironically, that many of us forget when we view Jesus as "just a step above" "real" humans. Our Creeds remind us that Jesus was fully human, as well as fully divine.
            There is really only one thing that we as Christians can never say in prayer. It is: "But God, you don't understand." Because Jesus became a human, God always understands. He’s been here and experienced it. And that, I suspect, is the motivation behind the Lucan story of the stable, the manger, and shepherds: this child was not born as a prince, or as the son of a CEO. Not in a palace, not even in the maternity ward at a good hospital, but in a barn, sleeping in a feeding trough, visited by dirty, smelly common laborers.
            It is that initial coming to live with us, one of us, that we celebrate at this time of year. If not for the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery could not have taken place: it is the essential condition for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But it is more. Many of the Church Fathers considered the Incarnation to be the beginning of the defeat of Sin and Death. St. Ignatius said in the 2nd century, "Christ became what we are so we could become what he is." And St. Athanasius in the 4th century made the statement, "God became human so humans could become god." This sounds sacrilegious, but he is only echoing 2 Peter, where it says "we are made partakers in the divine nature." And it is echoed in the Roman Catholic liturgy, when the priest puts the water in the wine, he says, "By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
            But perhaps there is even more to it than that. Some theologians have believed that even had there been no sin, the Incarnation would have taken place, anyway: that God created precisely because God wanted to share in the lives of his creatures as a creature. Karl Rahner, the 20th century Christian scholar, said that when God wishes to express Godself, there must be a structure, a "grammar" if you will, for that expression, the Word, and that the grammar of God's self-communication is humanity. In other words, we don't need to figure out how to get the Word (Christ) "to fit" into a human nature, since human nature was created precisely to hold the Word. Like a shoe is made for a foot, not a hand, and the foot slips easily into the shoe, so does the Word precisely fit into human flesh.
            What does all this mean for us? I believe that the Incarnation is an indication that the Word has been becoming flesh since God said, "Let there be light." It means that for Christians, matter matters. Matter is the beginning of God's self-expression into the world. It means that human beings are truly created according to the Imago Dei, the image of God, and that includes our bodies. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that if we truly understood what it meant for God to become human, we could never again harm another human being. We are, all of us, "mini-incarnations." If the Word had been becoming flesh, the Word is now continuing to become flesh. Or did you not remember that when you were baptized, you were baptized into union with Christ?
            And, as expressions of Christ, individually and corporately (as this church), our place in this world is to be Christ to the world. To take that mental image of our “Christ-ness” and carry it with us, remain in awareness of it, wherever we go. Yes, it’s a constant job to remember, and to act from that place in our daily dealings with others. And it’s very easy to forget.
            I start and end most days in prayer; I wear crosses most all the time, and put up pictures and quotations around our house – not to show off that I’m a Christian, but to remind myself of whom and whose I am – of what I am to strive for. It helps me to pay attention to what is most important in life. Perhaps something similar could help you to daily recall your individual, personal mission in life: which is to share God’s love.
            It’s been quite a while since I mentioned the Millennium Development Goals. Remember those 8 goals put forth by the United Nations back in 1990? We have only 3 more years to meet those goals. Yes, 2015 is the target date. Just to remind you of this effort, here is the list of worldwide goals: To reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half, to provide primary education for all children, to promote gender equality in education and opportunity, to reduce by 2/3s the deaths of children under age 5, to reduce by 3/4s the numbers of mothers who die in childbirth, to halt the spread of HIV/AIDs, to ensure environmental sustainability throughout the world, and to develop policies among nations to further economic progress for all. Perhaps you will be led to become involved in certain portions of this work, or at least add their mission to your daily prayers. And on a corporate, church level, perhaps we should consider becoming more active in helping those less fortunate right here in Pflugerville. We have been doing well with our donations to the Storehouse, but the last few weeks we’ve fallen off. Next week, and every week, let’s make sure that the Storehouse box is overflowing with food (especially peanut butter) for those who don’t have enough to eat. Perhaps this next year we could do more, actually volunteering at the Storehouse, as well as donating food and money.
            For you see, human life, matter itself, is even more than it appears to be, because God has come to Earth as one of us. And Jesus has given to each of us the greatest gift of all, the gift of being a child of God. We have union with Christ through our baptism, and are heirs to the kingdom of God.
            And that seems to me, to be more than enough reason to sing "Glory to God in the highest." Amen.

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