Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christmas Day, Year B, 2011

Who is being born here? The child of an everyday couple from Nazareth... or God, come to live the life of a human being on earth? And if it's God, what did it feel like, putting on our flesh? Writer and journalist Martin Wroe asks some of the questions that go to the heart of Christmas.

what colour are you God
what's your body like
any disabilities, distinguishing characteristics
would we spot you in a crowd
would we stare at you for some deformity
how many senses have you got
five, six, eighteen, ninety four
and what's your sense of touch like
is your handshake firm as a vice or slippery as an eel
what do you smell of
anything in particular - the universe, for example
planets, oceans, space, skies
do you smell of petrol like everything else
we believe your Spirit is always willing
but is your flesh ever weak
and if the Word was made flesh
are you flesh of our flesh
bone of our bones
is that you there, meek and mild
all meanly wrapped in swaddling clothes
is that you Baby J Word of the Father
now in flesh appearing
is that you screaming as you arrived
like the rest of us
screaming at the shock of the new
the shock of the cold and the old and the broken
is that you Baby J
slipping clumsily out from between a Virgin's legs
covered in blood and gunge and straw
when moments before you had been covered in glory
is that you tied to the mother of God by a fleshy cord
sucking on a woman's breast for your very life
what a come down
still at least you had an audience
cows was it, a goat or two
did they look on in awe and wonder
were the cattle lowing a bit
or were they a right nuisance
but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes
well, that's not true is it
the thing about flesh is it makes you cry
for better or worse, you've got to cry
who is he in yonder stall
at whose feet the shepherd's fall
did they fall ? did they recognise you up close ?
did they know that was you, God, in the flesh
or were they just intrigued by the heavenly host
and the funny star
and did the flesh inconvenience and annoy
and anger you like it does the
rest of us, your fleshy creatures
did your nose run green
your skin flake or bruise red
did you itch
your breath catch from asthma
in that smelly barn
your chest tighten in fear
and later on what did you do about your desires
you know, the fleshly ones
and, just out of interest, where on earth
did you go for your private movements
and are there miraculously fertile plants there today
trees with roots for miles and branches into the heavens
never barren, endlessly ripe...
or are those places where the divine squatted in squalor
feeling quite a lot lower than the angels
- wiping his bum with leaves -
are they like every other place, where folks did their business
with no particular supernatural horticultural memento
and when you were tired, when it all was going wrong
when your friends misunderstood, lost interest, wandered off
did you think
what did I get into this body business for
swapping omnipresence for being somewhere in particular
did you feel trapped in that body
or didn't you know what it had been like before you became body
when you were in-carnate
could you know what it was like out-carnate
flesh can't be in more than one place at a time
flesh is limited
flesh is awkward
you must have wondered at the restrictions of the corporeal
did you ever notice , could you tell the difference?
and did the flesh also exhilarate you, excite you
did you run and laugh and kiss
did you sweat and wrestle and argue
and if you longed to be more...were you grateful to have lived
on earth
a human
in flesh
to have become one of us
he was little, weak and helpless
tears and smiles like us he knew
and he feeleth for our sadness
and he shareth in our gladness
how's the old body now
do you wear a halo
or a crown
is it of gold
or is it of thorns
are there marks on your palms
blood on the side of your shirt still ?
Jesus of the body, of the flesh, Jesus of the Spirit
welcome to the body God
thank you for being it
putting flesh on the bones of our skeletal lives
fleshing out the way life might be lived
thank you Spirit of Jesus for becoming body among us
thank you that veiled in flesh the Godhead we see
flesh is all we have
but, now you now - as well as any of us -
flesh is not all we are

Martin Wroe is a freelance writer, mainly working for Sunday newspapers in the UK. He is an organiser of the Greenbelt Arts Festival. Something similar to the above is published in When You Haven't Got a Prayer (Lion, 1997), a collection of reflective spiritual writings. In another age he would have liked to have been a heretic but not burnt.
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Christmas Eve, Year B, 2011, 7:00PM

Luke 2:1-20
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One of the great yearly events of my childhood in Texas was the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In my day, the entire Astrodome complex would be given over to the occasion—the rodeo events and the concert were in the stadium itself, much of the parking lot was devoted to carnival rides and games, and the attendant sales of crafts and food and overpriced trinkets were located in the display halls around the campus.

It was a revered annual event in the Houston area. On opening day, all the schools in the region would host “Go Texan Day” and the kids would be encouraged to come to school in boots and jeans and coyboy hats. (For some of us, this was not much of a change from every other day, but it was a quasi-religious observance nonetheless.)

Everyone who could go to the festival, did. You’d drive onto the lot and park in outer Slobovia, then walk the rest of the way into the fairgrounds. Every age, and color of skin, and largeness of hair (this was Texas after all) could be found there…from “who’s who” to “Who is THAT?”

As you entered the carnival area, the noise got louder, and the press of people around you got tighter. The lights on the rides and booths were closer and bigger and more overwhelming. And then, gradually at first and then suddenly in a full-frontal assault, you would SMELL it. The smell of people, and carnival food, and above all the animals.

This was the Livestock Show and Rodeo, after all. The animals were officially the point of the whole thing. The barns and pens occupied the central hall of the complex, and you knew well before you got there that you were going in the right direction. As clean and well-scrubbed and carefully groomed as both beasts and buildings were, the smell was still the smell of a barnyard. Feed and sweat and animal waste, all at once. You couldn’t NOT smell it; I carried the memory of it in my nostrils for days afterward.

I’m waiting for someone to write a Christmas carol about the smell of the stable in Bethlehem. I promise you, it did not smell like lilies and roses. It did not smell like incense. It did not smell like gingerbread and roast turkey and dressing and pine boughs in a wreath on the door. It did not smell like “Christmas.”

It smelled like a barn. It smelled like sweat and animals and excrement, in the middle of a carnival festival gathering with too many people and not enough room, and no one much paying attention at all. And that is where it happened. Right there, in the middle of the mess and chaos.

Into the sweat and excrement and crowdedness of a carnival, with only outsiders and animals to witness, God came to us. Into the crowds and smells and noise, God came to us. Into our lives of messiness and chaos, in our own flesh and blood and bone, God came to us.

In Jesus, born of Mary this night in Bethlehem, God comes to us, as us, with us. In the mess, in the chaos, in the stuff of our lives that is not at all “Silent night, holy night”, that does not smell or feel or look at all like Christmas, God comes and meets us and loves us there, right there in the midst of it all.

We have a God who knows us inside and out. For in creating us in God’s own image and likeness, God has known us from the beginning—the beginning of time and our own beginnings, each one of us. In coming to us, as one of us, God experienced the fullness of human reality—birth, finitude, sorrow and grief, joy and celebration, and even death. It is no accident that in our Nativity window here at St. Augustine’s, the image of the manger cradle is symbolized by a cross. Both cradle and cross are part of the story—we cannot have one without the other.

Christ comes as someone we can know and see, and yet we know and see only in part. Part of himself remains a mystery—unseen, concealed and yet thorougly completely present and included. So our lives are mystery—somewhat seen and known and understood, but seen and known and understood only in part, even to ourselves.

But in that hiddenness and mystery; in the chaos and messiness; in the smell and sweat and struggle, God comes. Even now, even tonight, in the places where only animals and outsiders might even be around to notice: God comes to us. Visits us. Loves us, as one of us.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Last Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011, Year B

Luke 1:26-38
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One of my favorite movies around this time of the year is the 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife” starring Cary Grant. Grant portrays an angel named Dudley, who comes in answer to a prayer by the Bishop, played by David Niven. Throughout the film, Dudley has moments where he scares the daylights out of people by suddenly appearing behind them, and as they turn they jump in surprise. And his response is always the same: “It’s all right, don’t be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” Or in the old translations, “Fear not.” This commandment (for commandment it is) appears more frequently than any other in the Bible. I suppose the people of God needed to hear it more frequently than anything else. For it is fear—not doubt—that is the enemy and antithesis of faith. Fear can stop us in our tracks faster than any other adversity or challenge, it can (and does) paralyze and destroy peoples and communities and nations. And so, over and over through the scriptures, and especially when the angels come to call, we hear the words: Fear not: Do not be afraid. Fear Naught: Do not be afraid of anything. For God is with you.

“How can this be?” Mary asks Gabriel. She wasn’t expecting anything of the kind. It was, as far as she could tell, an ordinary day like any other. Nothing special or unusual marked it as being the day when her life would change for ever.

And yet it did change. For Mary of Nazareth, and for all of us gathered here this morning, half a world and two thousand years away, life changed that day. Mary’s word of “Yes” is the Yes that transforms the universe and everything in it.

She had no warning, no time to prepare a response, no time to really even think about the consequences that would follow. And the truth is, she could have said “No, thank you.” That’s one of the marvelous things in this story. In spite of the dangers she knew she faced (social ostracism, the possible breaking of her engagement to Joseph, the physical dangers of childbirth itself) and the dangers and risks she could not even imagine at the time, she said yes.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me as you have said.”

It is no accident, I think, that in our stained glass windows here at St. Augustine’s, the prophet window with Isaiah encountering an angelic messenger and commissioning is immediately adjacent to the Nativity Window, wherein Mary also encounters an angle and is commissioned to tell what she has heard and seen. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

In our keeping of Long Advent here at St. A’s this year, we’ve had seven weeks—almost twice as much time as everyone else!—to think about, and pray about, and study and ponder over what it is we are getting ready FOR, which is just beyond our sight, just over the horizon. It’s not just about the baby in the manger; it’s definitely not about the overconsumption that is driving us to be mauled at the mall.

Rather, it’s about God coming to us. Now. Today, and tomorrow, and all the time. On the utterly ordinary, commonplace days when we least expect, when we are not nearly as ready as we think we ought to be or might be if we had had more notice.

And yet, God comes. Expected or unexpected, Ready or not, God comes.

So ready or not, may our answer be the words of Mary: ”Here I am—as you will.”