Some weeks ago a few of us were talking about Christmas pageants and how no one has ever made a children’s pageant based on John’s version of the nativity. I thought the first chapter of John might make a great adult Christmas pageant. This is John’s version of the birth story and it connects Jesus intimately with the whole cosmos and with us, all at the same time. If there were a pageant made from this first chapter of John’s gospel, there wouldn’t be a manger or any farm animals, but there would be a lot of lights, and whole a lot of the glory of God. I don’t think music would be a problem—we could surely sing some of the hymns we’ve got today. The problem would be acting out the glory of god walking around on Main Street or Mercer Street or Roy Street.
The twentieth-century mystic and teacher Evelyn Underhill has written that “the Word has spoken, and spoken in the language of every day life.” This everyday-ness of the Word of God changes our reality, and changes the potential for how we move through the world. That God became human and dwells among us adds a dimension to our understanding of God and also to our own identity. Not only does God abide with us as promised through the ages, God is us.
John offers a trinity of information about the Word of God: its origin—the Word was from the beginning of all things; its relationship to God—the word was with God; and its identity—the word was God.1 From.With. Is. Think about these three aspects of our own humanity: our origin, our relationship to others, and our identity—a trinity of overlapping circles. From. With. Is. I was born in California in 1959, grew up in New York and then Boston in a mostly atheist-agnostic household. My parents marched on Washington for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. I went to a small prep school where I nearly flunked out, and attended a large state university. Twenty years later I attended General Seminary—All of this is where I’m from, my origin. I’ve always been a people-person, the more the merrier (especially in church). I depend heavily on a handful of close, longtime friendships. My husband and son are at the center of my life. Those are relationships that shape how I move through the world, who I’m with. What I am is Christian, Anglican, an American, a daughter, a mother, a person in recovery. Origin, relationship, identity.
When God becomes flesh and dwells among us, God lives in all of this threefold experience. God becomes part of our origin, relationship, and identity, dwelling in our individual and corporate humanity. God infuses our from, with, and is with divine life. God moves into our arena, pitches a tent in our midst. Not only does God go with us wherever we go, God who dwells among us as flesh is us wherever we go. Us, not me or you, not some but not others, all of us. From God’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
The glory of God walking around looks like us walking differently and acting differently. With the incarnation, God animates us in new ways.
Part of our origin as a particular worshipping community is the Oxford Movement and then the Ritualists in the Church of England in the 19th century. The Oxford Movement called for more sacramental theology and practice, along with the incorporation of beauty and ritual into every Sunday mass. Because the movement was frowned on by the church hierarchy (for fear of being too Roman and not plain enough, which is shorthand for a whole lot of other issues I won’t go into here), priests associated with the Oxford movement were assigned to parish churches in neighborhoods where no one else wanted to go. They were sent to slums created by Britain’s industrial revolution and to immigrant ghettos where no proper Anglicans wanted to live.
As a result, beautiful ritual and deep, reverent attention to the Eucharist, rather like what I think we have to offer here at St. Paul’s, became associated with the mission of the Church to the mass of people living in poverty. Anglo-Catholic slum priests and their congregations became the glory of God walking around places like the London Docks, Whitechapel Road, and Spitalfields Market. Today, Anglo-Catholic parishes in those neighborhoods continue to minister to the poor, IV drug users, people sleeping outside, and refugees. The church is light in the darkness. This is part of where we’re from and part of who we are.
What the glory of God looks like walking around is you and me being light that the darkness cannot overcome.
The word becoming flesh and dwelling among us calls us to be our best selves, and shifts our relationships and our identity from our selves to the other, just as God moves God’s divine identity from God’s self into us.
There is no limit to what we can do with God’s fullness and grace. In our humanness, it is easy to focus on our limitations and our fears. We can’t expand our ministry to the poor because we need to protect our beautiful spaces. We can’t serve a community meal more than once a month because we need to balance our budget, or because we are short on volunteers. We cannot seriously commit ourselves to anti-racism work because we are a white parish in a mostly white city in a mostly white region. But all of these “can’t”s are not what came to dwell among us. They are not the fullness God gives us and calls from us by sending Jesus to dwell in our midst.
What the glory of God looks like walking around is seeing God dwelling in the other. All others, grace upon grace.
In our Christmas blessing we pray: May God, who in the Word made flesh joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, give you his peace and favor. Let us pray that God’s peace and favor draw out in us the divinity that God intends for each one of us, that we might seek and serve the poor and downcast, and thus join the Word made flesh in drawing back the curtain between heaven and earth.
1 With gratitude to Karoline Lewis in her commentary, John, for this line of thought.