Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Arise, shine, for your light has some.” (Is. 60)
On Christmas Eve, I asked the question “What do you consider to be sacred?” The question is important, because what we consider sacred also motivates what we think matters — and because in Jesus God becomes identified with the whole of human experience, it turns out that every aspect of our life, matters.
I’d like to push the theme of the sacred a bit further today, the 12th and final day of Christmas, because it too has something important to teach us. If you were here last Sunday [at the later services], you [would] will remember that the service was made up of nine readings and hymns that cumulatively place the Christmas story in the great arc of God’s creation and redemption of the world. It’s a service that steps back to take the long view, and it offers a rather different narrative than what we encounter in just the angels and shepherds and carols we associate with Jesus’ birth.
For given the chance to hear nine readings from scripture, we let ourselves follow the lead of scripture itself—which draws us rather quickly past the stable and manger, and pushes us to confront that in Jesus, God becomes identified from his birth with the darkest, most violent, most despairing corners of human existence. We heard of Herod’s jealous genocide; Mary and Joseph’s anxious flight into Egypt; and their life in Nazareth as immigrant refugees. And if you really want to understand Christmas, then you have to tell this part of the story too, because if you don’t, the rest of it is nothing much more than a kind of fairy tale, just another a part of the folklore that surrounds the holiday season.
When you encounter the rest of the story, it’s as if the stone of divine life that is dropped on Christmas Eve into the pool of human experience, quickly sends out rippling rings that begin to take in the whole of who we are. In Jesus, God goes to the depths of human nature. And the carols and hymns that memorialize that movement, though they may be less well known, are also in many ways the most honest of the season’s songs. They lead us to sing for instance, “What Adam’s disobedience cost, let Holy Scripture say, ourselves estranged, an Eden lost, and then a judgment day,” or in response to Herod’s murder of the children, the Coventry Carol offers “Woe is me, poor child for thee, and ever mourn to say, by-by lulley, lullay” (more a lament than a carol, really).
And in fact, if we pay closer attention to even the more familiar carols, especially their interior verses, we might notice that they too anticipate that Christmas is to be understood not as an unambiguous joy, but rather as the first act of the drama of the passion, when on the cross Jesus will take upon himself the whole of human suffering. The third verse of “It came upon the midnight clear,” for instance, has us sing, “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and warring humankind hears not the tidings [the angels] bring” (words ominously prescient even now of this past week’s troubling events in the Middle East). Johann Sebastian Bach himself, in many of his Advent and Christmas works, put a musical sign of the cross at the very points where Jesus’ birth is mentioned: da-da-da-da: birth leading toward death.
So today, we observe yet another part of the story, the Epiphany, the showing forth of Jesus to the world, embodied by the three shadowy figures from the East who are drawn to him for reasons they themselves cannot explain. They are certainly among the strangest figures in the whole of scripture, for they come out of nowhere, play a dramatic if brief role in pointing the way to Jesus, and then just as mysteriously as they arrived they vanish, never to be heard from again (although Cologne Cathedral claims to have their mortal remains). But in both their unexpected arrival and their definitive departure, they serve to focus our attention on these spreading rings of the sacred that radiate out from Christmas, through which God gradually reaches into every corner of creation. So the point of this feast day, is that there is nowhere, and nothing, that has not or cannot or will not be touched in the end by God in Christ.
And so, in this Epiphany extension of the Word made flesh beyond the bounds of what we could ever anticipate, we come to see that there is nothing that is not made sacred by God’s touch. No darkness is too deep, no war is too violent, no depression is too overwhelming, no suffering is too intense, nor sorrow is too unbearable—that it cannot be entered into, reconciled, and included in the peace and hope of God. Instead of our usual assumption that the sacred is something rare and unusual, or that it is just one folder among many in the file drawer of human experience, in Jesus we learn that the whole of life is sacred. In fact, the sacredness of creation is the vessel of life itself.
And so Epiphany gives us this message: treat yourself, and the whole of life, as sacred gift. Take nothing for granted, for it has all been touched by God—the worst, as well as the best. Here at church, we are reminded of this sacred character of life each day at Morning Prayer, when we begin our intercessions with the words, “We give thanks for this new day, for friends, lovers, companions, and children.” Let that same kind of gratitude for the giftedness of life, and attentiveness to the moment, be the expectation that infuses your own spirit this Epiphany season. And then, and only then, shall we shall truly be prepared to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Amen.