That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Incarnation

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Since taking up my duties as Rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, New York, I am sorry that I have not found much time to update my blog. I hope very much that that will change in the New Year. But even so, on this Fifth Day of Christmas, I wanted to share my sermon from Christmas Eve.

God bless you in this holy season and in the year to come!

cole-angel-shepherds

(“The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-34. The sudden in-breaking of the Angel Gabriel into a dark, dead scene perfectly expresses the unexpected arrival of life into our world and our hearts.)

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector, Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” That’s how Charles Dickens opens his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Most folks probably know the story these days through a movie or television adaptation. I must confess a certain fondness for “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, though that is probably not considered the most faithful interpretation.

But whatever version you may know and love, they all begin with that same odd, unsettling, downright creepy opening line. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Who starts a Christmas story by talking about death?! It’s crazy!

But Dickens does it for one very important reason. He tells the reader, “Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” If we were not quite certain that Marley was dead to begin with, his appearance in the tale would not astound or surprise us.

And by beginning in the way he does, Dickens accomplishes more than merely weirding out his readers—though he does do that. By beginning with death, Dickens makes sure that the eventual arrival of life astonishes and delights us all the more. By beginning with death, Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly old grump—or, as Dickens calls him, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner”—into a warm-hearted, generous, loving friend, can be seen for what it really is: a journey out of death into life.

So why am I telling you all about the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at this late hour on Christmas Eve when you could just as easily be home right now, sitting next to the fire with some high-octane eggnog, watching your favorite movie version—or, even better, reading the original book? Well, it’s because the story we tell tonight in Church bears a striking and significant resemblance to Dickens’s classic tale. There are no bah humbugs, no ghosts of past, present, or future, and no huge turkeys. But just like A Christmas Carol, the Christmas story we hear tonight begins with Death.

Maybe you didn’t notice it. I’ll admit, it’s not very obvious. If all you know about this story is what you just heard read from Luke’s Gospel, you might even think I’m extremely confused to claim that there’s anything about death in it at all. I mean, aren’t we here to celebrate a birth?

But did you hear in our First Reading what the Prophet Isaiah said many centuries before the birth of Christ? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Now we tend to focus on the light, and that’s good. But what was that darkness? Who were those people dwelling in a land of shadows?

Or were you listening when Isaiah talked about “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders”? Before we can understand the freedom he’s celebrating, we have to ask: What was that burden? Who put that bar there?

Or did you wonder why, in the midst of all that beautiful stuff about light and freedom and the child who is called “wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there was that one odd and ugly line about “the boots of all the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood,” being “burned as fuel for the fire”?

Or did you hear the hint of a warning in St Paul’s Letter to Titus, when he writes about God who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people”? Did you consider what the iniquity from which we are being redeemed is? Did you ask why we need to be purified in the first place?

Or even in St Luke’s great story about the birth of Jesus, did you listen when the Angel told the Shepherds just who this child was? “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior…” Why did the Shepherds need a Savior in the first place? Why do any of us need a Savior? What are we being saved from?

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” said Charles Dickens. “The world was dead: to begin with,” says the Bible.

The Good News of Christmas begins in the same strange, unsettling, even creepy way that Dickens’s classic story begins. It begins with death. Not just the death of some old money-lender named Marley. But the Death that looms over all people— the Death that looms over all creation. The Christmas Gospel, the Christmas message, begins with this announcement: “We were dead, to begin with.”

Perhaps that seems to you a preposterous and unbelievable claim. But consider what we’ve seen of the power of death this year, and this holiday season. Terrorist attacks in Christmas markets, a never-ending crisis in Syria, violence and crime in our own cities, and in our towns, and even in our villages. Consider what we know of the problems of addiction throughout this nation and even in this community. Consider the death of civility that we all witnessed in the election cycle just concluded.

When we are not able to quiet our fears of the future or satisfy our own longing for security, we feel the power of Death. When we cannot buy enough or own enough or give enough away to protect ourselves from the changes and chances of life, we feel the power of Death. When we finally face the awful fact that our lives are not our own, and we see that we have been walking in darkness and dwelling in a land of deep darkness, we see that we have been living under the reign and power of Death.

That hard truth must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the wonderful Good News we have heard this night.

For tonight, the Angel of the Lord speaks again to each of us, just as he spoke to the shepherds twenty centuries ago. He speaks to ears like ours, that have grown deaf with straining for a word of hope. He appears to eyes like ours, that have grown dim with watching for our redemption. He calls to hearts like ours, that are heavy with all the hatred and bitterness and tragedy and violence we find in our world. He brightens minds like ours, that cannot figure a way out of all our troubles: the troubles we have caused for ourselves and the troubles thrust upon us unfairly and unexpectedly and without a way out.

To us the Angel Gabriel speaks, and says,

“Fear not. For though you were dead in your sins and trespasses; dead in the things that took you far from God and that broke your bonds with other people; dead in your words and in your deeds; dead in your waking and in your sleeping; dead in your hardness of heart and your brokenness of will—Though you were dead, fear not. God has acted. For unto you is born this day a Savior. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The trappings of violence will all be rolled up and destroyed. The threat of judgment has been averted. The promise of the prophets has come true. Not just to save you from the final threat of ultimate death, whenever it may come, but to raise you from the gloom of living death to true life right now—to set you free from the burdens of your oppressors, and to break the bar of tyranny laid across your shoulders by your own drives and desires and appetites and anxieties. Fear not. For unto you is born this day a savior which is Christ the Lord.”

We were dead to begin with, but through the Birth of this Holy Child, life has broken into our world.

We were dead to begin with, but God in Christ Jesus has come to make us alive again.

We were dead to begin with, but the life and death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem has shattered the power of death and risen us to life.

O come, all ye faithful! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Hark, the herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn king!” For we who once were dead have now been made alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.

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“Nor of the will of man, but of God.”

A Baptismal Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2013

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich

Texts: Hebrews 2:10-18; John 1:1-18

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory.”

 May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last week, we heard two of the three great Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. Luke furnished the shepherds, Matthew brought the wise men, and we had quite a party. But what about John? This morning we have heard another nativity narrative, though we may not have recognized it as such. John’s account can seem sort of hard to relate to. His nativity story begins on a cosmic scale, in words that echo the grandeur and glory of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

That is pretty powerful stuff, and it deals with some of the great themes of Scripture: light and darkness; creation and nothingness; God and the Word of God. How much easier for us to connect with the stories we heard last week: the sweet baby in his young mother’s arms; the lowly shepherds marveling as they hear the announcement of the Angel; even the mysterious wise men following the distant star to kneel before the newborn king. These tales, at least, involve real flesh and blood people. We can imagine their emotions. We can appreciate their fears. We can share in their hopes. But John stands in a different category altogether.

Or does he? For just when it seems safe to write John off as too abstract—too grand, too cosmic, dealing with things that do not and cannot concern ordinary, everyday people in Greenwich, Connecticut in late 2013—we hear this astonishing pronouncement: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word, the One who was in the beginning, became flesh. The Word, the One was with with God at the creation of all things, became flesh. The Word, who is God, became flesh, and dwelt among us.

Beloved, the Feast of the Nativity—the Feast of Christmas—which began last Wednesday and continues on until next Sunday, is a celebration of an interruption: of a collision between the reality that you and I inhabit each day, and the reality of God’s purpose that runs in and through and against this world.

That is a big claim. It can be a hard claim to accept. After all, ours is a world where so much often stands so contrary to the promises and purposes of God. Ours is a world where people kill and are killed. The newswire this morning mentioned a train-station bombing in Russia, and a rocket landing in Israel. Where is God’s reality in that? Ours is a world where stunning natural beauty suddenly and unexpectedly transforms into terrifying natural disasters. A report I read recently said that thousands of the dead still remain unburied seven weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Where is God’s reality in that? Our is a world where children in the greatest city of the wealthiest nation on earth still struggle with homelessness and abuse and instability and hopelessness, as an extended piece about a young woman named Dasani made very clear over the last several weeks in the New York Times. Where is God’s reality in that?

Dear people, the feast of Christmas does not presume to answer these questions. Indeed, the promise of Christmas is not that we shall have an answer to our every question. The promise of Christmas is not that this fallen, complicated world will suddenly and simply make sense for us. But the promise of Christmas is, instead, that in all those cases and places where human suffering or human sin seems to snuff out the light of God’s reality: behold! the light shines there in darkness. The promise of Jesus coming among us as a tiny baby is that in every place where children suffer—in every place where innocents wonder “Why?” and where exploitation reigns—the Word by whom and through whom all things were made is there, present with them in their suffering. The promise of this great feast of God’s in-breaking is that whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, whatever we have done—whether the world in its cruelty has beaten us down, or whether we in our wickedness have forged our own chains as our own oppressors—even so, even so we are never beyond God’s reach. For if “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” then the crucified Jesus stands with us in the very depths of human sorrow. If we have “beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father,” then the light of his Resurrection shines even in our darkest hour.

But on this day, we recall that God has done more than to break into this world on a cosmic or a universal level. God has chosen, instead, to break into individual lives. For “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Beloved, those words are for us. Those words speak to what we are here today to do. In every baptism—in your baptism, and mine—we glimpse the power of God breaking into this world, crashing into our lives, raising up sons and daughters to his name and glory.

The new birth that we will soon witness at this font is not the same as a natural birth—that’s what the part in our Gospel about blood, and the will of the flesh, and the will of man means. None of that is to be found here. The new birth that happens in baptism happens by the will and power of God. Consider what this means. This baby makes no choices today. Her parents, it is true, have chosen to bring her here. But our passage from John makes quite clear that what happens this day happens not because of their choice, or my choice, or your choice, or any human choice.

Today, God chooses to enter the life of this child. Today, we see the Christmas story all over again, written not in the cosmic scope of John’s prologue, nor in the narrative wonder of Matthew or Luke, but in the sweet and simple script of an individual life: God—unexpected, uninvited, unanticipated—steps into the human experience. Once he came as a baby in Bethlehem. Now he comes by means of water and the Spirit into the life of this baby, and by bread and wine into our lives. But it is the same God—the same Word—who comes to dwell among us.

This is Good News. This is daunting news. This is big news, for someone as small as this dear child. It is big news for people as small and silly as me and you. But it is Good News still. For today we hear the announcement and we see the fulfillment that the God who made the stars and seas—the God by whom and through whom and for whom everything exists—has chosen to be with people such as we are. This is not cause for triumphalism or pride. This is cause for fear and trembling: for great joy and great humility.

For God has chosen to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God has chosen to draw us to himself by these sacraments and in the life of his Church. God’s Holy Spirit moves in us now: strengthening us, challenging us, purging us, purifying us—binding us one to another, and the living to the dead, and at last bringing to fulfillment the sanctification of all.

“To those who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God. Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

AMEN.

“A great and mighty wonder…”

On this Fourth Day of Christmas—the Feast of the Holy Innocents—I’ve been re-reading and thinking about the two poems I posted a few days ago: John Betjeman’s “Christmas” (posted when I got home from Midnight Mass at about 1:30 on Christmas morning) and Robert Southwell’s “The Nativity of Christ” (posted once the shreds of wrapping paper had settled and the necessary toy-assembling was done on Christmas day). They are two of my favorite Christmas poems. Though very different in style, content, and context, they approach the Incarnation from the same perspective. Betjeman and Southwell both look upon the Birth of Christ as “a great and mighty wonder,” as the carol puts it—a surprising, paradoxical, unexpected thing that, in spite of all appearances, has earth-shaking significance.

I love the way that Betjeman begins with (and never really leaves) “the sweet and silly Christmas things.” The first five stanzas of the poem are entirely devoted to the stuff of a secular Christmas: cheerful pubs, bright bunting in the town hall, shops “strung with silver bells and flowers.” Even the decorating of the village church in the second stanza is really just a part of general Christmas merriment (rather than some special expression of spiritual devotion). It’s all done “So that the villagers can say / ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.”

And all of this is good. Betjeman surveys these things fondly, with just a hint of longing and a hint of irony. The sentimental, slightly soggy stuff of Christmas isn’t bad. Families coming together (even “girls in slacks…and oafish louts”) and the excitement of children and the tinsel-trappings of the season: these are all good things.

But they are not the Good Thing. Whenever I read this poem, I imagine someone at a warm, cheerful holiday party. Standing with a glass of eggnog in his hand, he’s just finished a light and friendly conversation with an amiable acquaintance. Now he is, perhaps only for a brief moment, alone in the midst of a party overflowing with all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” cherished by our culture. Suddenly, in the sixth stanza, a question rises in his brain: “And is it true?”

What occasions that question? Maybe my imaginary partygoer glimpses a creche hidden under the Christmas tree. Maybe there’s a card on the mantle with some beautiful depiction of Mary and Joseph and the baby on it. In the third line of the sixth stanza, Betjeman himself connects the question with a “stained-glass window’s hue.” Perhaps the poem’s speaker has just escaped a brightly decorated street of shops by dropping into an empty church. Whatever the source or inspiration, in the sixth stanza the question of the Incarnation suddenly breaks into the poem.

And that is precisely how it must be. My post in response to the Rev’d John Ohmer’s thoughts on Advent is predicated on an understanding of Christmas as something abrupt and unexpected. The Feast of the Nativity—the Church’s celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation—can never be simply an extension of the good things of “the holiday season” as the secular world keeps it. Christ’s birth cuts at an angle to all the things of this earth: all of our bad things, and all of our good things—all of our sad things, and all of our happy things. Christmas interrupts us, just as surely as a wondering thought can steal upon a person at a party, or an unexpected encounter with a piece of art (a stained-glass window, a painting, a statue, or a great work of music) can raise unanticipated questions in the soul.

“And is it true?” Betjeman’s question, with a touch of modern embarrassment and slight skepticism, does not grow out of the ordinary stuff of Christmas. Rather, it engages with astonishing news: news that changes everything. Betjeman begins with all the good things this world affords, which really are abundant at Christmastime. But he ends by turning from them to the pearl of great price—the treasure hidden in the field—the “Baby in an ox’s stall”—and realizes that nothing else “can with this single truth compare.” 

Southwell, on the other hand, begins in the stable. With the great Biblical word of announcement—Behold!—Southwell dives right into the paradox of Christ’s birth: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” What a delightful summary of John 1.10: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him.” The entirety of the first stanza is given over to the wonderful impossibility of the Incarnation: the Word of God—“the old of years”, “Eternal life”, “the mirth of heaven”, “might”, and “force”—lies newborn in a manger—“dumb”, weeping, “feeble”, creeping.

But what is the point of all this paradox? It is astonishing, but why does it matter? Southwell tackles that question in the second stanza with a series of imperatives: “O dying souls! behold your living spring! / O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!” Southwell’s list of paradoxes in the first stanza speaks directly to our “dying souls”, “dazzled eyes”, “dull ears”, and “heavy hearts” in the second.

And the greatest paradox of all, the paradox behind all of Southwell’s clever paradoxes, is that the gift of the Incarnate Christ—a gift that reveals God in a new and surprising way—transforms not God, but us. God is not lessened or changed by the Nativity of Christ. But by “assumption of the Manhood by God,” humankind is renewed and restored. Receiving God’s gift to us makes us what we were always intended to be: God’s gift to himself.

Southwell’s final stanza surveys the cosmos from the edge of the manger. He tells the story of Genesis 3 in just one line: “Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast.” So we stand: reduced, diminished, unmanned (in a different sense from the usual use of that word). And how does God address our alteration and loss? By coming down to meet us in our deepest depths: “Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh; / Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d, / As hay the brutest sinner to refresh.” If men and women have, by the Fall, been made beasts, then God’s solution to this dilemma is to become the food of beasts: literally to lie in the feeding trough of cattle.

“Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew, / Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!”