“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). One of the most crucial sentences in all of Scripture. Expressing the heart of our faith. Like me, you may have learned it in the language of an older translation: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (King James version). The Word that was in the beginning, the Word with God, the Word that was God: built a dwelling. Built it where? Among us. In our very flesh.
As we put into practice during Advent, we humans make meaning by keeping time. But we also make space. We build buildings and furnish rooms in which to dwell. By making space and by keeping time we form community, for spaces house human relationships. And through symbol and story, we humans connect with the wider world, with the divine, and find our proper place. Such dwelling defines our Christmas practice.
On this snowy Sunday morning, in this hilly city and region, during a now two-year pandemic, when so many members of this community cannot get here or choose not to gather here, this space is impossible to take for granted. Our building – our sacred dwelling – invites renewed reflection. Built in the early 1960s to replace another house of worship in which the St. Paul’s community had dwelt since 1903. Renovated a decade ago. As the wise, old saying around churches goes, we built the building, but then it turned around and shaped us as community. For just as surely as communities make space for themselves, spaces form communities. Or de-form community. Or re-form it.
I have to ask, we have to ask: how do we make space at St. Paul’s? Who is welcomed in? Who is left out of our space? What dominant social/political/economic placements of people does our physical space reinforce or critique and replace? Who stands? Who sits? Whose voice is amplified? Whose muted? Do we form a circle or a long line? What centers our gathering? How permeable are its thresholds?
I can make these questions even more real, more experiential. For I took part in two gatherings of our St. Paul’s community on Christmas Eve. I attended the 6:30pm service on Zoom. And there they were – the children of this parish. Sitting in front of screens from Seattle and Kirkland to North Carolina and South Korea. All of them taller and older than when last I saw them in person. I realized with sadness how incomplete my sense of community is without them here in this space, in this building. But I was also surprised once again by an unexpected joy of Zoom church and live-streaming – that our communal gathering is not limited to this physical space at 15 Roy Street, but can connect us each in our own homes, our own dwellings, in one virtual house of wonder, love, and praise.
And I was in this very space later on Christmas Eve for midnight mass. The first high holy day celebrated with a traditional figure-8 procession at the beginning since we kept the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle in January 2020. Except, during the carols and motets before the beginning of the mass, a woman very bundled up and masked – a first time visitor, I think – showed up in her very large, motorized wheelchair. Talk about making an effort to come to church late at night! She placed herself right down here in front of our crèche. Except I realized from the chancel up here, at the same time Daryl and Megan did back in the entryway, that it was going to be impossible to weave our impending procession through the narrow aisle between communion rail and front pew with the woman in the wheelchair in place. Talk about a conflict between liturgical practice and physical space! Between welcoming the stranger and keeping our familiar, in-house communal traditions. With his usual gentleness and compassion, Daryl offered the woman the alternative hospitality of one of the cutouts in the pews along the side aisle or a place in the double-wide main aisle right up front. The woman chose the latter. I pray it felt to her like a place of honor, rather than one of displacement.
So this is our Christmas gospel, at least as I hear it. I wonder what you hear? Ultimately, we don’t form Christian community and we don’t make sacred space. God in Christ does. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Our dwellings, all of them – both home and here at church – represent little rooms within the cosmic and yet oh-so-earthy building that is the body of Christ. How ought we re-form community and truly make space for Christmas?
Due to the forecast of snow and very difficult travel conditions in and around Seattle on this Sunday, the folk involved in liturgical planning at St. Paul’s were prepared for multiple scenarios. In one of them, I would walk to church and serve as substitute preacher with this sermon. It was never actually delivered as we decided to cancel the 10:00am and 5:00pm masses on December 26. But as you read above, my words assumed they would be “placed” in the upstairs worship space at St. Paul’s.