Thursday, December 26, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year A, Christmas I, 2013

The Preacher’s Study

First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
1st Sunday after Christmas

Juan Oliver

The presents are opened, the tree is starting to dry, the eggnog is gone, Now what?

Part of the challenge of preaching during the twelve days of Christmas is that most people assume Christmas is over and done with.  But the readings for the coming Sunday and the following give us many ways to unpack the gift of Christmas, to look at it, appreciate its magnitude, and taste its flavor. The prologue of John, if rather abstract sounding, puts it succinctly: the Word has become flesh.

Alexander Schmemann once wrote that, if the great feast of Orthodoxy is Easter, that of Anglicans is Christmas. He was not, I hope, making a theological point, but rather pointing to a difference in style. Theologically, Easter will always be the Great Feast. But Anglicanism, with its love of the tangible and "all things bright and beautiful," has a special place for Christmas. 

An example of this is Bill Countryman's perhaps startling claim that Anglican spirituality is fundamentally an aesthetic spirituality.   By aesthetic he did not only mean beautiful, or about beauty, but aesthetic in the original Greek meaning of the term: related to perception. Whether in painting, poetry, hymnody, architecture or worship as a mixture of all the arts, Anglican spirituality cares about how things are perceived. For that you need stuff, tangible stuff, and not only abstractions. Anglican spirituality could not exist without the Incarnation.

Years ago Bette Midler sang about God who watches Earth from very far away.  I remember thinking, that's so un-Christian!  Christmas makes exactly the opposite point: God is one with the earth, one with us (Emmanuel), one with nature, one with history. This a God who rolls up her sleeves and gets into what a British critic once referred to as "the reek of the human," the messy, conflict-ridden, injustice driven human tragedy, refusing to accept it as it is and insisting it can be much, much better.

The Word, the Torah (teaching) by which all things came to be, has become living flesh in action. God walks God's talk, lives the message for all to see and hear. In Jesus God pitches God's tent among us in Jesus the living temple, and in us, the living stones that make it up. For as Silesius said, "Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until he is born in me."

Isaiah could see it coming because he wanted it so badly: Justice and joy will eventually take over. We must believe it with all our heart precisely because it is not yet true.

Paul saw this event as God's decision to liberate those who were under the law (Torah) so they could be revealed as what they are: children of God, possessed by a Spirit who calls God "Daddy!" (or "Mommy" if you prefer), a Spirit that sees us as God's relatives, because the Totally Other has become a member of the family.

Thus, if the message of Christmas means anything, it means that we can no longer be "spiritual" without being "physical."  That dichotomy has been shown to be false. Instead, there is a physical-spiritual continuum.  This is of huge importance for those of us who strive to follow in the steps of the humanized God. It means not only that the positive aspects of physicality, such as the thrill of being alive, our physical connection to nature, and the rhythms and satisfactions of the body, are necessary aspects of our spirituality, but that hunger, illness, privation, and death itself, are no longer merely physical conditions, but every bit as spiritual as they are physical.

In sum, we cannot have a true Christianity that it is only "spiritual."  The early Christians stressed the physicality of God in Christ, his real death and equally real resurrection. 

This meant in practice, that human physicality could not be ignored in the name of God. It meant that the hunger of the hungry is a spiritual scandal; that the homelessness of those on the streets is an insult to God; that we must look into the structural causes of human suffering and do something about it and that a Christian "spirituality" unconcerned with real, tangible, suffering is not the real thing. To be the real thing, Christian spirituality must delve into human life and get its hands dirty to change social and economic structures that bring about unnecessary suffering to humans and to all creation.

That this process has already begun is Good News indeed.  News that the poor hear most clearly for they, as Luther might have put it, have to live by faith alone. Let us join them, willing to be led by the bastard child of a teen mom, son of an unknown father, lying in a dirty manger, adored by ignorant, unschooled shepherds.

Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.


  1. Once again, Juan, you have done what Michael Ramsey thought an essential characteristic of good leadership: Expressing difficult ideas clearly. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Richard! I am by no means alone.... :)