The First Sunday after Christmas
30 December 2007
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Stephen Harding
Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
As one interested in various forms of healing, I have been drawn to the healing practices of the Native Americans and the shamans. A friend of mine told me that she had gone to a weekend seminar on Native American healing. This was something she had really wanted to go to, and had gone to some effort to attend. On the way there, she developed a fever, and a cough…and felt miserable when she got there.
As this was something she really wanted to participate in, she went to the room appointed for the seminar, by this point curled up in a fetal position, feeling wretched. She introduced herself to the instructor and said that she wasn’t feeling well, that she had come a long way to learn, and that she would not breathe on anyone, but that she would sit outside the circle of participants and listen.
All the participants arrived and sat in a circle – my friend curled up outside it – and the seminar began with the instructor saying that the healing tradition that was being taught held that the sick person was to be brought into the center of the circle. My friend was brought into the center of the circle, where the intentions of the others could be focused: she spent the rest of the weekend in the circle’s center.
In her retelling me this story, she said that being sick remained a constant for her. What she could feel, dramatically, was the difference of the quality of the energy of being on the outside, alone, and being in the middle of the circle, surrounded by accepting kindness, the focus and recipient of healing energy from all sides.
This practice of place the afflicted person in the middle of the circle is only the beginning of healing interventions. If someone is really sick in body or in soul, one of the Native American healing traditions is to gather the elders of the tribe in just such a circle and the appropriate interventions are carried out; if the condition persists, then the elders and healers of the neighboring tribes are gathered to strengthen and reinforce the power of the healing circle. If the condition persists after all the interventions from this second group are exhausted, then this council of elders and healers takes the next step: they re-name the individual and give that person a new identity.
The thinking, as I understand it, is that this new person, this new identity, is in a new relationship with the world. The conditions that led to the old state of disease are not able to have as firm a grip and can thus be overcome, leading the afflicted person to a new relationship with the world and with him or her self.
Every year at this time, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus – the Word made flesh and dwelling among us – I wonder why. Why would God choose to come among us in this form?. A thunderbolt, yes; a mighty warrior, yes; a judge to winnow the good from the bad, okay, maybe. But this? An infant, helpless and utterly dependent on others – it doesn’t make sense, and I continue to ask why.
This year, with my own one year old son, Theo, as a sermon illustration at home, has been a year of fascination, wonder, awe, joy, love, and delight. Seeing my child and other children grow and begin to explore his world around them, I find that several things have happened that I wasn’t immediately aware of. First, my identity has shifted from being ‘Fr. Harding’, or ‘Stephen’, to being ‘Theo’s dad’. This has major implications to which I am only beginning to adjust…
I find myself thinking now not of my immediate needs, or my wife Storm’s immediate needs, but of Theo’s immediate and long-term needs and our perspective has shifted to planning for his generation and for the generation after his. Taking this long term view for his benefit is another change in our identities as parents.
As I look at my son, I want him to grow up safe. I don’t want anything bad to happen to him, and I realize that I have no idea of the world he will live in as an adult. I worry about the legacy I am leaving for him in terms of who I am and the choices I have made. I want him to have enough education so that he will be able to choose what his path in the world will be, and I want it to be challenging and satisfying for him.
All of this – and more – is in my heart as I contemplate this mystery that is the Incarnation, which has come, not just for new parents, or for people with children, but for all of us. The readings for this Sunday are powerful, and speak to us of our new relationship with God and point to our new identities as ones who are loved by God. Isaiah writes:
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your GOD. (Isaiah 62:2-3, NSRV)
Isaiah writes of a new relationship, a new identity, a new status, a new relationship with the Divine; Paul flat out writes
…but when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7, NRSV)
So. Each of us is a child of God; each of us is loved by God, and this Child whose birth we celebrate in this Christmas season has made it possible. This is not just the birth of any child, which in itself is a miracle of life, but the birth of the Son of God, of life itself, shining with the radiance of the Light and come to live among us: the infant and the vehicle to transform our relationship with God, so that we too, become children of God.
The psychotherapists tell us that in dream-work, the dreamer simultaneously becomes all the characters in the dream. In the reality that is Christ’s birth, I believe that we in some way we become the infant Jesus. We become not only Him, but all who have come to worship and adore. We become his mother. We become His guardian and protector, Joseph. We become the shepherds…the sheep…and even, somehow, the angels. All this through the spirit of Jesus, sent into our hearts by God.
‘It is the Sacrament of yourselves upon the altar,’ writes St. Augustine, ‘the sacrament of your selves that you receive.’ We are both child and adult, worshipper and adored, gift-bringers and recipients of grace. He is our child, loved and adored, and wanted, longed-for and fiercely held, to keep safe, and, dare I say it, whose legacy is our own.
This is the child whom Herod sought, our child who has transformed our identities into who we are: God’s beloved children, who expect miracles, whose hearts are open, who believe in the goodness and love of God for us and for the world.
We are the heirs of Christ and His friends. Just as we share in his birth, so do we share in his legacy of resurrection and eternal life.
St. John writes:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:3b-5; 12-13, NRSV)
This is the legacy that Jesus has left us: the sure and certain hope and the promise of our resurrection and eternal life. He has left this, his legacy, not only for us, but for all generations.
I think about all this and wonder, what legacy are we, as Parish and as wider Church, leaving for future generations. Will William and Sophie and Grace and James and Ben and Lillian and Theo and all the other parish children find our Church a place of love and acceptance for all people and a place where God can be listened for and heard? What will our legacy as children of God be for others and what will it be for the parish’s children in a world that we don’t know.
All I know is that our identities are transformed each Christmas and throughout the year and that we are loved by God.
Our prayer at the end of the Angelus is that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. I find myself thinking that we have been given the gift of God’s Son and that we, in turn, are building our own lives and our legacies on His promise.
In the shining radiance of His new birth, may we be worthy of these promises and live into these new identities and love others as we are loved.
The Reverend Stephen Harding
© 2007 Stephen Harding