2nd Sunday after Christmas

January 3, 2010
See Also: 

A New Year Blessing
John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 147:12-20
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 1:3-14
Reading 4: 
John 1:10-18
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Jeremiah 31:7-14
In this oracle the prophet looks forward to the re-gathering of Israel after the Exile in Babylon. Jeremiah uses imagery of the people “walking by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble”; this is reminiscent of Isaian imagery of the hills being leveled and the valleys being raised to make a straight highway for the people’s return, imagery that figures prominently in gospel accounts of John the Baptist and Christian observance of Advent. The Jeremiah passage takes the imagery one step further, however, in speaking God’s pronouncement that “I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn”: God is not simply the path-maker or the shepherd of the people, but is intimately and inwardly connected with them as their generative source. For Jeremiah this was of course understood in a collective and communal way, in that God was “father” to the whole people. In Christian interpretation—especially as this oracle is assigned in the lectionary for Christmastide—the promise of God’s being “father” is more specifically realized in Jesus. But that specification is almost immediately generalized again in the good news that through Jesus God “adopts” us, seen in Ephesians below, and gives us “power to become children of God,” as it is put in the prologue to John in the gospel reading. God’s promise to gather the people transcends and includes any particular instantiation—be it exodus, or return from exile, or baptism for repentance, or adoption in Christ—to look forward the inclusion of all things in God, the Adventure of the Universe as One. The cosmic reach of the oracle of gathering will be explored in more depth in the readings from Ephesians and John.

Psalm 147:12-20
The psalm is particularly interesting in that it explicitly links the natural and human domains as arenas of God’s law. The poet refers especially to wintry weather—something rare in the Bible, but for Christians in the northern hemisphere something that seems especially appropriate for Christmastide—asserting that snow, frost, hail, and cold are all examples of how God “sends out his command to the earth” and how God’s “word runs swiftly.” The poet then asserts, without pause or distinction, that God “declares his word to Jacob” and gives “statutes and ordinances to Israel.” The “word” in both cases seems to be identical; there is not one word for nature and another for humans; the Torah and what later thinkers would call “natural law” are seen to be equally expressions of one divine reality. This explicit linking of the “word” in nature and the “word” in the life of the faithful will be echoed and focused in the Incarnation of Jesus in the gospel passage from John.

Ephesians 1:3-14
The Ephesians passage parallels and complements some key points of the gospel reading from John below. Where John says that “all things were made through” the Word at the beginning, Ephesians speaks of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” Where John says “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” Ephesians proclaims, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Perhaps most significantly in the context of Christmastide, where John speaks of the “power” Jesus gives to people “to become children of God,” Ephesians announces that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” This emphasis helps to culminate and conclude the ecclesial celebration of the Nativity by pointing beyond the birth of Jesus in itself to promise of rebirth in Jesus, given by God to the faithful. What is most important in the observance of the Nativity is not simply historical remembrance—after all, the best historical conjecture is that Jesus was born in the springtime, when shepherds would have been tending their flocks overnight during lambing; the choice of the winter solstice as the time to celebrate the Nativity has much more to do with symbolism than with history—what is most important in the observance of the Nativity is the proclamation that Jesus was born to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, the one in whom human and divine come together so as to enable our human lives to be enlivened in divine life also. The good news of our “adoption” by God through Christ is the real upshot of the stories of the Nativity. This Ephesians reading, especially coupled with the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, puts the celebration of Christmas into the cosmological and soteriological context of its deepest meaning.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18
The gospel readings in Christmastide so far have focused on stories from Luke and Matthew about the infancy and youth of Jesus. But with this final gospel before Epiphany, the focus changes to theological reflection in the prologue to John’s gospel. It’s as if the earlier readings retell what happened, while this reading tells why it happened; the earlier readings celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, while today’s reading unfolds the Mystery of the Incarnation. John Cobb has written an excellent short piece on the Incarnation from a Whiteheadian point of view, and a link to that piece is provided at the top of this page. Cobb points out that every moment of experience arises from the inclusion of others, and one of those others is the Logos of God. God’s Logos (or Sophia, Wisdom) is linked by Cobb to Whitehead’s notion of the Primordial Nature of God, in which God envisages all possibilities and patterns of possibilities that might be actualized in the concrete world. The Logos is thus the patterning power that draws together diverse elements of feeling into definite unities of experience. In Jesus in particular, the Logos guided the patterning of other elements of feeling in such a way that all of Jesus’ moments of experience were specially characterized by intimacy with God. In Jesus the Word drew together the basic elements of being human—atoms and molecules and cells, tissues and organs and limbs, thoughts and feelings and memories, hopes and dreams and fears and ideals, family and history and culture and identity—the Word drew together the basic elements of being human, and patterned a human life in whom the divine life of God could shine forth and be revealed for everyone. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we are not just celebrating the birth of a child—although that is certainly something worth celebrating—but we are celebrating how all the bits of being human were drawn together by the Word in Jesus so that all of us could see the human face of God. We celebrate how Jesus in his birth drew together Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men and the angels, to show how God’s Word draws all sorts of people together to make new beginnings possible. We celebrate how Jesus in his ministry drew together sinners and outcasts and the proud and the weak and the humble and the lost and the faithful, to show how God’s Word transcends all barriers and causes new communities and new communion to emerge. We celebrate how Jesus in his death and resurrection drew together the shreds and tatters and broken pieces of a life that had been torn apart by fear and jealousy and anger and violence, and how Jesus made them live again, to show how God’s Word can create anew when by human standards everything else seems lost. At Christmas, in celebrating the Mystery of the Incarnation, we celebrate how in Jesus all the bits of being human were drawn together in the Word to show us the human face of God.

And the mystery of the Incarnation doesn’t end there. John says: “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.” The mystery of the Incarnation that began in Jesus, the work of the Word in drawing together the bits of being human to reveal God’s creating love that began in Jesus, doesn’t just end there, but draws us in also, so that we too become part of the enfleshing of the Word. The Word of God draws us in today to make more and more complex and intricate communions in the growing Body of Christ on Earth. The mystery of the Incarnation is not just that Jesus was born; but is also that we are born, born and re-born, we are called to come together in new relationships with new possibilities, we are called to form among ourselves the patterns of God’s Word for peace and justice and right relationships and well-being and compassion and love. With this prologue from John’s Gospel to round out the Christmastide readings, we are invited to see the Incarnation as something not solely tied to the Nativity of Jesus, but through that Nativity as something to be lived out in our contemporary lives of faith, as well. In this way we human beings become conscious and intentional agents of God’s mission to gather all things into fulfillment in the patterns of the Word through whom all things are made.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.