The Tip of the Iceberg (Christmas 2023)
Every year, in the spring, when l look at my social media feed, I get to see pictures of icebergs that my friends from Newfoundland have posted. I love icebergs. Massive, beautiful sculptures of nature, dazzling in the sunlight in various shades of blue and white. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because what I also love about an iceberg is knowing that it has great depth, that most of it lies beneath the surface, beyond the range of our everyday vision.
Christmas is bit like an iceberg. It’s big. It’s beautiful. It dazzles. It’s the birth of a child, and for those of us that have been there for the birth of a child, you know how special that is, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Christmas is about a mother and a father and their newborn baby, born at a particular time and in a temporary resting place, a child whose parents will hold him in their arms and experience all the beautiful human emotions that overcome us at such a wonderful moment in time. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because Christmas also has a depth to it, and the deeper we probe, the more awestruck we become.
Christmas has a timeless quality about it, doesn’t it? That’s part of its depth. As we gather here on this night, as we gather, many of us, with family tomorrow, we relive our Christmas traditions, we are immersed in the memories of the Christmas’s that have come before. Our memories might bring us joy, or for some, the sorrow of loss, emotions that transcend this particular night. And, of course, the birth itself that we celebrate is one that happened many, many years ago, far away, but in a timeless sort of way we recreate that birth here tonight as we do every year. In our retelling of the story, we remind ourselves that we are immersed in a mystery. The child that we see in the stable, the baby lying in a manger, is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only the beginning. There’s a depth here that we goes beyond our everyday vision.
And I suppose that it’s this depth, and this timeless quality of Christmas, which, in an odd sort of way, remind me of my past life as a quantum physicist. Because quantum physics teaches you that there is so much more going on in our world than what we experience at the everyday level of ordinary life. That what we see in our day to day lives is just the tip of the iceberg. Quantum physics has a way of forcing you to reimagine some of the things you once thought of as common sense, of making you look at even time and space in a new way. When we zoom in to the microscopic level, to the level of quarks and photons, we find that the objects we thought were solid and stable are mostly empty space, and the void is filled with particles popping in and out of existence in a complicated dance of energy and matter. When we zoom out to the scale of galaxies and black holes, we discover that most of the universe consists of a dark matter that we can’t see but that we know must be there in order for gravity to work the way it does, and that even space and time themselves will bend and warp as they move amongst the stars.
As a physics student, it’s all a bit mind-blowing at first. But what eventually develops, at least what developed for me, is an openness, a sense of awe and wonder at the intricacy and the beauty of creation. What we see at the level of our everyday experience is true, and it matters, but it only hints at so much more that is going on in our world. We are immersed in a great mystery, and what we can see and touch is only the beginning. The tip of a great iceberg.
Which, I think, is why there are two very different gospel texts that we read on Christmas Eve. One looks at the tip of the iceberg. The other explores the depths.
The first is Luke’s story, the one that Linus recites in a Charlie Brown Christmas, the one that we read at 4pm this evening and acted out in our children’s pageant. Luke’s gospel tells us about the birth of the baby Jesus, that very particular and concrete event which was experienced on the first Christmas. Luke conveys the sights, the sounds and the emotions of the night in ways that we can relate to: the fear of the shepherds, the singing of the angels, the smell of the hay, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, the wonder and the joy of all who gathered in that cave in Bethlehem. It’s a beautiful telling. It’s evocative. It hints at more to come.
John, in his gospel, wants to give us that something more. John wants us to go deeper. In his epic poem, the one that we just heard as our gospel reading, he’s inviting us to transcend time and space as we know them. He wants to signal to us that the birth of this child is just the tip of the iceberg, that there is more, so much more. That this wonderful little bundle of flesh born in Bethlehem is also the Word made flesh, the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word that was God. There is a depth here, a mystery that transcends our ordinary experience, a mystery that goes beyond the birth of a child.
A child is born, a wonderful occurrence, it happens every day. And yet this child is the Word who was God, the one through whom everything was created, the one who reflects God’s glory in the world. He will live a very human life, walking dusty roads, accepted by some and rejected by others. Yet that life is somehow intricately linked with our own lives, even all these years later. The Word became flesh and lived among us. It is this child who will make God known to us, and who will empower us to become God’s children.
Bethlehem is just the beginning. The birth of the child is only the tip of the iceberg. We are immersed in a beautiful mystery that goes deep, that offers to take us beyond what we can fully comprehend.
We begin, as we must, with our own experience, with the tip of the iceberg. It is in our concrete, day to day lives, that we get our first glimpses of the mystery that lies both beyond and within. It is in the birth of the child that we begin to intuit what it means for the word to become flesh.
Because the glimpses we have been given of that mystery are true. Tonight, as we gather together, as we light our candles and sing our songs, we hope to experience a moment of joy, of wonder, of beauty, of peace. These things are true, if sometimes elusive. Not only are they true, but this is just the beginning. Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is just the tip of the iceberg, a beautiful and true glimpse of a wonderfully deep mystery. Emmanuel is the name we give him. God is with us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you and remain with you always.
Homily: Christmas Eve 2023, Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7, Hebrews 1.1-4, John 1.1-14
Image by Pixabay