The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas

Let us pray:

Come thou Wisdom from on high

and order all things far and nigh

To us the path of knowledge show

and cause us in Her ways to go. Amen.

It was for the author of the gospel attributed to John as if time had stopped and started all over again. Or been rewound. Or spiraled back on itself. This new beginning was another beginning, not the same beginning. But it changed everything. I know the “in the beginning” language is beloved, traditional and familiar, but grammatically it’s more like “when beginning…”

John 1:1 When beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. That which has come into being 4 in the Word was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

God begins with a word, the logos, in the Gospel. God begins with the Aramaic word for word, Memra, in the mystical tradition of Judaism on which Yochannan whom you know as John is drawing – if he indeed wrote the gospel penned in his name – just as God began with the d’var, the Hebrew word for word when beginning all things in Genesis. When beginning each time, each beginning was a word, a divine word, a holy word, a spoken but not yet written word, perhaps a word whispered in a still small voice.

That word was light and life; it was more than alive; it was life itself. The word was the God of life and the life of God to be breathed, poured, into humanity giving us life in the image of God. This eternal living light cannot be extinguished and shines forever as God lives forever, as we too will one day live forever. This living light has been infused into and through creation and we – and the whole of creation – are suffused with it. But that light coexists with darkness.

The light is shining in the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome, overwhelm, diminish or suppress the light. Yet what John does not say (in verse five) is that the light does not overcome the darkness. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Friday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, around this nation and around this world.

I didn’t tell you the title of the sermon because it might have seemed too dark without some introduction. Today’s sermon is “When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas.” The juxtaposition of the first Sunday of Christmas with the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is intentional in our calendar. The sweet little Jesus child, holy infant so tender and mild, was born into a dark world, in which children were murdered for financial and political gain. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. Some will die doing the holiday season. Others will fall ill; there will be fires and accidents and other tragedies. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And in many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts.

Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways. Perhaps even more scandalous is how God did it: The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body, a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation: human flesh and blood, the secret places of a woman’s peculiar biology.

For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work as well, encouraging, facilitating, instigating; the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for all of the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.

So God became human, woman-born. Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. To be human is also to be in relationship as God is in relationship within Godself.

The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua, Jesus, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth. He was like us and we are like him. We are human. We are mortal, frail, embodied, humans. We ache for human companionship. We worry about our parents as we come to grips with our own mortality. In our desperate pain we search for a familiar comforting face. And we pray that when it comes our time to die, we won’t have to face it alone.

We do not walk alone among the shadows of earth because God is Immanu El, God with us. In our brokenness, in our fullness, God is with us. God is with us when the bullets are flying, when the ground is shaking, when the planes are crashing, when the waters are rising, when the ship is sinking, when the winds are howling, when death is knocking, when the shadow of death stretches out and touches even Christmas – God is with us! God is with us when we are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. God is with us when we are raped and tortured and murdered. God is with us when our children, our precious children, are stolen from us. God is with them in their fear and horror! God is with us in our rage and sorrow and grief! God is with us! God is with the suffering and the dying, comforting and accompanying through that valley of death that we cannot yet enter. This is the Gospel, not that we’re untouchable, not that we’re inviolable, for even the Son of God was violated. But that we are never alone, never forsaken, never absent from the Divine presence is the Gospel of light and life.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. One of the reasons Christmas was placed at this point on the calendar is because the days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.

(For) What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow, that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God.

How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table? Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth, with all of its nooks, crannies, corners, crevices and crevasses and even that Shadow-Valley, Death.

This light will shine through the ages; it cannot be overcome and one day it will banish all darkness. One day when the shadow of death extends itself to the Christmas season its touch will be rebuffed; it will fade in the light of Christ. Whether we join God in heaven or God and heaven join us on earth, the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. For where God dwells, there is no darkness or shadow at all.

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

 

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd

East Falls Philadelphia

30 December 2012

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