The Moment (Christmas Eve)
There are moments that are life-changing. Moments in our lives that change everything. Think about the moments that you’ve experienced. Maybe it was when you saw your future partner across a crowded room and it was love at first sight. Maybe it was the birth of your child or grandchild. There is nothing theoretical, nothing abstract about these moments. They’re real. They happen right here and now,
in a particular time and place. They move us, they etch themselves in our memories and divide our lives into before and after. Some of these moments are big, dramatic even; many are much more subtle, and we may only recognize them in hindsight. But all the same, these experiences change our lives, in ways big and small. Sometimes our life changing moments are grand mountain-top experiences. Sometimes they occur in the dark, in challenging times, when we suffer, in times when we walk in deep darkness and then all of a sudden, often to our great surprise, we see a light that shines in the darkness and refuses to be overcome.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of our life-changing moments take us by surprise. Surprise is a wonderful thing. It has a way of opening us up, of opening us up to new possibilities, and of making us pay attention. Surprise is the encounter with something we didn’t expect, with something that amazes us. It brings us to a liminal space where we are on the edge, at the threshold of a new becoming.
Which is not always a comfortable place to be. When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the hills near Bethlehem on that night so long ago, the shepherds were certainly taken by surprise - and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” Yes, you are on the threshold of something new, something that will change you in ways you can’t predict or control. Don’t be afraid. Go with it. Go to Bethlehem. Let this moment change your life.
I think we tend to underestimate God’s ability to surprise us.
I have a friend, a clergy colleague who some years ago wanted to learn Biblical Greek. So he took a course, here in Ottawa at St. Paul University. His instructor didn’t use the usual method of lectures and textbooks. Instead, she sat around a table with her students, and they opened a Greek version of the New Testament. They turned to the Gospel of John, and started working through the very text that we just heard as our Gospel this evening. En arche en ho logos. In the beginning was the Word. And as they worked through the first chapter of John, they reviewed the prepositions, and they learned the verb tenses, and they wrestled with the genitives and the declensions and the rest of the grammar.
And my colleague, who is pretty goal-oriented, he worked hard, and he was good at it, and he stuck with it, working through the first chapter of John word by word, verse by verse, until he came to verse 14:
Kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskenosev en hemin.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
And in that moment, something got through to him, and my friend was moved to tears.
After weeks of wrestling with the Greek, with the grammar, with the big picture of God, with the mysterious poetic language and its the cosmic metaphors of Word and the light, verse 14 hit him in a completely different way. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. No more big picture. No more grand philosophy or theology. A child is born. There is nothing more concrete, nothing more specific. Here’s the child that is born, this one, lying here in a manger beside Mary his mother. And the birth of a child changes everything. Right there, in the middle of a Greek class, my friend had one of those moments that takes you by surprise.
I had a moment like that recently. It happened four weeks ago, when I was in Nazareth celebrating the first Sunday of Advent. After worshipping with the local Anglican community, I went over to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the big church in Nazareth that celebrates Mary. While I was there, I walked down to the lower level, the basement really, and there I saw a cave carved out of the limestone bedrock. The cave is thought to be the family home of Mary. An altar has been placed at the entrance of the cave, and on the front of the altar, there is an inscription.
“Look at what’s written there,” whispered a friend who was beside me.
It was again that same verse, the one we read this evening, the one that moved my colleague to tears in his Greek class. “The word became flesh”. Except that it wasn’t exactly the same – one word had been added.
“Here, the word became flesh.”
Here. In this place. In this cave. This is where Mary conceived, this is the room where it happened. “Here”, that one little word, caught me by surprise. All of a sudden, a well-known verse was no longer a line of poetry, no longer a theoretical statement, no longer a theological doctrine. It became a moment. A moment that happened here. Right here. In a very particular way. And I have to say that the surprise of that realization astonished me, and actually shook me up a little.
God became human in the most concrete way, in a moment, in a particular time and place, conceived in the body of one particular human being. It was surprising at the time, and it still has the power to surprise us, even to shock us, now, when we least expect it. No one was expecting this to happen. It was scandalous at the time, it still is today. It is at odds with so many of our big picture ideas about God. God as transcendent, God as up there, God as omnipresent, God as all powerful. Our gospel reading, this beautiful poem from John, begins with the big picture about God. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Beautiful. Great stuff. But the moment that makes a difference, the moment where it gets real, the moment that changed everything, is when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Here. God became human in a very particular way, as surprising and shocking and scandalous as that might have been, in a particular time and place, so that we humans could come to know God, who until that moment, no one had ever seen.
This is what we gather to celebrate this evening. The birth of a child, a child whom we call Emmanuel, God with us. We remember that moment. We can point to the place. And that concreteness, or particularity, matters. We know that there’s a big difference between saying you love humanity in general and actually loving that very particular person who’s sitting next to you. That’s where it gets real. That’s the difference that incarnation makes.
However, when you think about it, the particularity of God’s place in the universe 2000 years ago isn’t the most important thing. We can debate whether the early church and the archaeologists got it right when they identified that particular cave in Nazareth as Mary’s home. Does it matter?
What really matters is the particularity of God with us today. Can we point to the place? The child who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago promised that he would always be with us. So yes, by all means, let’s celebrate and re-create the historical moment when God entered our world as a baby in Bethlehem so long ago. But the moments that really matter, that moments that will shape and change each one of us, are the moments when God enters our lives in concrete and surprising ways today. These are the moments in our lives when God becomes real for us, the moments that change everything.
They won’t always be easy to recognize. They will almost certainly catch us by surprise. They may even terrify us at first. But the words of the angels to the shepherds still resonate through the ages, “Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy”. Be open to the God with us moment in your life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Go with it.
Because this moment just might change your life.
Homily. Christmas Eve 2022. Trinity Anglican Church
Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14