Preaching the Incarnation: John 1 on Christmas Day

Our own Rita Ferrone recently asked:

Is it really so difficult to preach on John? Maybe Cody or some other PrayTell Chrysostom will post a model homily for Christmas day to help the homilists who struggle with this text. (I’m presuming the lectionary for the Episcopal Church has the same reading as the RC for Christmas day. Is this correct?)

Yes, Rita, same readings more or less. . . I’m sure that the RCL has opened up a few more options to us, but on Christmas Day my preference is to preach on John 1. (And since I’m the only single priest in a parish whose clergy are otherwise married, guess who gets to take the morning mass while everyone else stays home and opens presents with the kids?) Actually I love it passionately: an intimate congregation, no pressure to sell the “Christmas story” to once-a-year guests (who all come for the big music at midnight), and time to dwell with the theology of the Incarnation.

So in spite of Rita’s flattery — me, a Chrysostom? — here’s my homily from the liturgy of Christmas Day last year. It was preached extempore, and transcribed some weeks after the event; and looking it over again, I seem to owe a tip of the biretta to Karl Rahner.

CHRISTMAS, MASS OF THE DAY
AND SUNDAY I IN CHRISTMASTIDE

Alleluia! Christ is born. + Glorify him. Alleluia!

“In the beginning. . . .”
How wonderfully does today’s Gospel lesson take us back —
all the way back, back to “in the beginning.”

“In the beginning,
when God created the heavens and the earth. . . .”

“In the beginning
was the Word. . . .
. . . and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .”

“. . . and God said. . . “

God spoke,
and in that speaking,
in that wording,
by that Word,
by that all-creative Word,

the universe,
the cosmos,
the world was made:

“All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.”

God’s Word —
present to God, one with God —
is a creative Word,
a fashioning Word,
a life-giving Word.

“Let there be!” — and there is!
And what is, is good. . . “very good,” as we are told.

God’s first Word, God’s creative Word,
is a good Word, an affirming Word.

And when at length God’s Word speaks “us,”
God creates a “Hearer of the Word,”
and not a hearer only,
but “in the divine image God created them”:
beings, creatures, persons who could speak,
interlocutors, conversationalists,
dialogue partners, speakers of words.

But what is our first word to God?

When God tells us that we are good, “very good” indeed,
what do we do, but counter-speak — or contradict — God.

“You are good,” God says to us.
“Wanna bet?” we say to God.

Hearers of God’s good, creative word,
our response is lies, deceit, and death.

We speak
pride,
greed,
injustice,
hatred,
exclusion,
marginalization,
abuse,
violence.

We try to speak louder,
to out-speak God.
We cry, we shout, we rage:
but God will not enter our shouting-match;
God will not be outspoken,
nor ultimately contradicted.

God’s Word named us “good,”
and God’s Word is fixed in the heavens,
God’s Word endures forever.
God’s Word is a “lamp for our feet, a light for our path,”
and that “light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

So in the fullness of time,
that Word of God,
present to God in the beginning,
one in being with God —

the Word who was God,
spoke flesh and blood, sinew and bone:
“the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

John’s Gospel makes no mention of Luke’s Bethlehem,
tells no story of overcrowded inns,
sings no song of angels and shepherds.
It presents us with a fact,
straightforward and simple,
“the Word became flesh,”
God became human.

John does not mince words,
and we need that if we are to fathom Bethlehem;
But we need Luke, too, if we are to understand John.
For “Word becomes flesh,” God becomes human,
not in some palace, not at the heights of earthly wealth and power,
not in any of the places we might expect such an event,
but at the very point of our human vulnerability.

A barely-wed mother, and an angel-crazed stepfather,
the unsanitary muck of a stable,
and a baby who hungers and thirsts
and wets and soils his swaddling clothes.
And angels announce the tidings of this birth to sheep-keepers,
among the poorest of the poor, unclean under the Law,
society’s outcasts — the lowly of the earth.

Behold, Bethlehem!
Here in poverty, in insecurity, in vulnerability,
here, here, here the Word becomes flesh:
here is your God.

“He came to what was his own,”
a story teller, a tale spinner,
the Word of God, come to speak a message.

In vulnerability born, so vulnerable he lived,
to tell our story over, from “in the beginning,”
without contradiction,
told to those who could and would hear it aright:
those who live on the margins,
those who dwell “in the shadow of death,”
the poor and outcast of earth’s children. . .

. . . the ones “who have hears to hear.”

And so the Word spoke:

“Blessed are the poor. . . .”
“Blessed are the meek. . . .”
“Blessed are hose who hunger and thirst. . . .”
and “Blessed are the peacemakers. . . .”

“Hear, O Israel! You shall love the Lord your God —
and love your neighbor, too.”

“Who is your neighbor?”
(Most likely your mortal enemy.)

To the sinner, he spoke “forgiveness,”
and to the injured, he spoke “forgive.”
To the broken, he spoke “healing,”
and to the warring he spoke “peace.”
To those excluded by the strictures of the law,
the Word spoke “clean”—
“reconciliation” and “inclusion,”
“community” and “home.”

“To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation;
to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy.”

“Let your light shine,” he said,
and “Lazarus, come out.”

“I am the resurrection. . .
the Way, the Truth, the Life.”

“I give you a new Commandment:
Love one another.”

Mercy
peace
reconciliation
forgiveness
justice
inclusion
love.

Love one another.

“Yet the world did not know him. . .
and his own people did not accept him.”

The Word spoke Truth to Power,
and power contradicted him. . .
with words that hurt —
exclusion; marginalization; injustice; abuse —
and words meant to kill —
terror; violence. . . crucify!

Like the Word speaking in the vulnerability of Bethlehem,
the creative Word of God spoke from the vulnerability of the cross.
The Word became flesh to speak to human need,
to human brokenness,
to every point of weakness, and danger, and threat,
to tell again our story, speaking it anew
from cradle to grave.

And so his final words, his parting words,

“Father, forgive them. . . “
“Today you will be with me in paradise. . . .”
“Behold, your Son. . . Behold, your mother. . . .”
“Into Your hands I commend my spirit. . . .”
“It is finished. . . . “

And the Word-become-flesh,
the vulnerable Word,
became the Word-become-silence.

But God will not be outspoken,
nor ultimately contradicted.

“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so is my Word
that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

As in the beginning,
when God’s Word spoke heaven and earth,
and all that dwell therein,
God’s Word sounded forth anew,
a final Word, a definitive Word.

“Life,” he spoke,
and it was so.
“Resurrection,”
and it came to be.

And it was good.

These words of the Word echo through time and eternity,
and like that first naming — “good” — they will not be retracted,
cannot ever be taken back.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us,”
and “to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.”

The Risen Word speaks a new creation,
the Risen Word makes us “words-within-the-Word.”
“Be Hearers of the Word,” he tells us,
“but not hearers only.”

“Go,” he says;
“Go,” his new word spoken to us.
“Go, speak truth in the places of power,
go, speak love in the places of hate,
speak healing in the places of brokenness,
speak inclusion on the margins of society, world, even church.”

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory. . .”
. . . and lived to tell about it. . .
. . . and will never be the same again. . .

And so, his Word becomes our word:

Mercy
Peace
Reconciliation
Forgiveness
Truth
Justice
Compassion
Inclusion
Hope
Love
Home

Good!

Amen.

11 comments

  1. Thank you for this! While I will hear a wonderful homily on Christmas Day, it will not approach the mystery of the Incarnation like this!
    Simply beautiful.

  2. Fr Cody,

    Thank you, it’s beautiful, and so inspired. I’ve read it several times. Again, thanks, and a blessed Christmas.

  3. This is splendid, just splendid. You are a Chrysostom!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful example, Cody. May it inspire more preachers to mine the riches of the lectionary for Christmas day.

  4. Fr. Cody,

    I really like your reflection and it reminds me a lot of my reading for Trinity class today in Marion’s God Without Being. Not exactly Chrysostom, but still really cool. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  5. Lovely. I’m reminded of one of my favorite children’s books (I bought it for Thomas on the occasion of his baptism): Jesus, the Word by Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones. It’s beautiful – like your homily, it follows God’s Word from creation through human life to the incarnation to the cross and resurrection, and the poetry is wonderful.

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