First Sunday After Christmas Day
While I was in Nashville over the past week, I was talking with my nephew and the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” came up. The church that my sister and her family go isn’t one that really follows the church calendar like we do outside of Easter and Christmas Day, so the idea of there being more than one Christmas was a bit of a strange concept. Knowing that I work for a church, he asked me what the song was actually about, so I tried to sum it up in a sentence, and I think I said something like, “In some churches, Christmas Day is just the beginning of the Christmas season, and it lasts for twelve days before ending at Epiphany.” As soon as I said that, I realized that he probably didn’t have any idea what Epiphany was, but he went on to a different topic, so that was the end of that conversation.
In the days since Christmas morning, it seems as though all of the presents have been torn open, and the wrapping paper has been thrown away. Many have already taken down their Christmas trees and stowed away all of the decorations. Stores have stopped playing Christmas music, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Yet while it seems as though our homes and our communities may be done with the Christmas celebrations, the liturgical calendar keeps us in Christmas for a few extra days. In the same way that Advent made us wait for the birth of the Christ child, this extended Christmas season makes us sit with the Christ child for just a little while longer, ensuring that he doesn’t get thrown out as quickly as the decorations were.
I’m personally glad for this, because I’ve found myself over the past few days thinking more intentionally about what this season is actually about. Now this is a phrase that we often hear soon after Thanksgiving as we’re inundated with messages pushing us to “remember the reason for the season” and to “keep Christ in Christmas,” but that’s not quite what I’m talking about. Even in our depictions of Christmas that still focus on the Christ Child, it seems to me as though we have done a fantastic job of sanitizing the message of this season, of trying to tame the story into the same comfortable one that we hear every year. We hear the same stories, sing the same carols, and have the same traditions year after year after year. And I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with that—it is a beautiful season after all—but there comes a time when our traditions try to domesticate something that really cannot be domesticated.
Our Gospel reading this morning to me is a sharp reminder of this. The Gospel of Matthew starts with a reminder of where Jesus is coming from, tracing the lineage of Jesus all the way back to Abraham; The Gospel of Luke includes the beautiful story of the angel coming to Mary, and her subsequent Magnificat; and the Gospel of Mark starts with John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah.
But the Gospel of John takes a large step back and starts off the same way that we start the whole Bible: In the beginning. It’s not concerned as much with the earthly origins of Jesus as the other Gospels as it is with the existence of the Word of God in the very beginning, in the time before time and existence.
As you can imagine and see, I would say that it’s the most dense and abstract of all of the Christmas stories, and we could easily have a yearlong Bible study meticulously combing through this passage; even still, we likely wouldn’t exhaust the creativity and depth of it
But at the heart of this message from John is this strange, unfathomable story: the Word of God—that which was there at the very beginning—becomes flesh, and God is forever bound to human history. God has taken on our flesh, and as one of my professors at Union used to say, “wherever God is is holy.” God has come into our darkness so brilliantly that the darkness cannot extinguish the light. And perhaps most importantly, God is with us. Not adjacent to us, or hovering above us, or abstractly near us, but with us; within us; amongst us.
Scholars suggest that this passage originally wasn’t written as part of the gospel but was rather a hymn that was sung in some of the earliest churches. And while I could try to extrapolate some kind of message from it for you today, I honestly think that we we need to hear most are the words themselves. Allow me to read it once more in a different version than before.
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
What came into being
through the Word was life,
and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
The true light that shines on all people
was coming into the world.
The light was in the world,
and the world came into being through the light,
but the world didn’t recognize the light.
The light came to his own people,
and his own people didn’t welcome him.
But those who did welcome him,
those who believed in his name,
he authorized to become God’s children,
born not from blood
nor from human desire or passion,
but born from God.
The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
Friends, this is the Word of God for the people of God, born amongst us and forever with us. Thanks be to God.