Readings for the First Sunday after Christmas
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka on Sunday December 27, 2020.
Another reflection on Fr. Shag’s portrayal of St. John the Apostle was published by the Times-Standard under the title “His Light Combats the Darkness.”
Merry Christmas, everyone, on this third day of the Christmas Season! Isn’t it wonderful that we Episcopalians don’t just celebrate Christmas on one day like the wider culture? After today, we still have nine days left of Christmas so if you still have some Christmas cards or gifts you want to send out, there’s still time! And please don’t rush to take down your Christmas tree or decorations because it is still Christmas and we are still celebrating and basking in the great mystery of Christ’s birth and presence among us, in the flesh.
Today, this third day of Christmas, also happens to be the Feast Day of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, traditionally considered the author of the Fourth Gospel and thus the author of those powerful words we just heard proclaimed by Archdeacon Pam. For those who joined us for worship on the first day of Christmas (Christmas morning), you heard this same Gospel proclaimed by Deacon Anne; and you heard Mother Lesley describe how this poetic prologue invites us to “enlarge our understanding of the birth of Christ” and to see this moment in time from a cosmic perspective, as an expression of God’s immense and infinite love for you. The love that moves the sun and the other stars is consistently available to you, even when everything else feels inconsistent and unreliable (like so many things have been in 2020). This prologue clearly inspired the great godfather of hymnody Isaac Watts when he wrote the final stanza of “Joy to the World” which we just sang: “He rules the world with truth and grace”: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Because John offers this cosmic perspective, he has been associated with the symbol of the Eagle as he provides us with a sweeping, eagle-like vision of creation. He’s also been associated with thunder. Jesus himself gave John and his brother James the nickname “Sons of Thunder” which sounds kind of like a biker gang. The thunder imagery captures the passion of St. John but it also captures the magnificence of his prologue with its cosmic description of light crashing into the darkness to wake us up and slap us all into enlightenment (like a Zen master slapping a student with keisaku stick). “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (like a crash of thunder).
The church father John Chrysostom comments on the prologue by saying, “Hear how John thunders!” and St. Augustine of Hippo says, “John opens with a burst of thunder” And some of the early Christians believed that there was great thunder and lightning on the night when John was writing this prologue, just like there was on Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the law. This image of thunder inspired Fr. George Shultz when he painted his portrait of St. John. You can see the thunder in the background and you can also see the eagle carved into the frame. This portrait conveys the mystical passion and spiritual devotion of St. John, the author of what St. Clement of Alexandria called the “Spiritual Gospel” as opposed to the more historical gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
What I also appreciate about this portrait is that it captures another element of John’s Gospel (and perhaps of the apostle’s personality); and that is a profound appreciation for the flesh as a vehicle for God’s Glory in the Incarnation. Out of all the twelve portraits of the apostles, this is the only one that includes a portrayal of the flesh of Jesus Christ. In the background, you can see his feet bound at the foot of the cross. According to tradition, John was the only apostle who remained with Jesus when he suffered on the cross while all the other disciples abandoned him. And John, who had a deep appreciation for the body of Christ, was also the disciple who rested his head on Christ’s bosom at the Last Supper, listening to his heartbeat (as the Celtic Christians say).
John had a profound appreciation and connection to the physical body of Christ and we hear him affirming the flesh in the prologue when he unmistakably rejects all those early Christian heresies that denied the full-body reality of Jesus Christ. The Word did not just appear to be flesh, it became flesh and lived among us, thus making it crystal clear that God loves physical matter: God made it, God became it, and God wants us to experience Him through it. Ever since Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple declared that “the Word made flesh” is the most important phrase in all of Christianity, Anglican biblical scholars have tended to emphasize this flesh-affirming character of John’s Gospel. As an Anglican priest who has published a book on John, I find myself standing in this lineage and eager to share the Gospel’s invitations to affirm the flesh as God’s preferred vehicle for His glory.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to take great delight in wholesome, earthly, flesh-affirming pleasures. He inaugurates his ministry by miraculously bringing more wine to a wedding party in which the guests have already had enough (2:10); and in the Middle Ages, there was a popular legend that claimed that the young man getting married at the wedding was the apostle John. And it was after tasting that divine vintage that he decided to follow Jesus.
Also, in John’s Gospel, Jesus offends his listeners with a description of the Bread of Life that is far too fleshy for their religious tastes (6:60-61); he makes healing ointment out of dirt and saliva (9:6); he receives an expensive and seemingly excessive foot anointing from a female friend (12:1-8); and he himself strips down to almost nothing to wash his disciples’ feet (13:1-11). And there’s much more.
In light of all this, I’ve come to see John’s prologue as a prelude to the almost scandalous ways that Jesus delights in creation, inviting us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the matter that is all around us and the matter that is us. Throughout this Christmas season, as we celebrate the Christ Mystery born of a woman’s body, John’s prologue reminds us to appreciate the gift of our bodies and to experience our flesh (and the earth!) as sacred vessels for divine life and expression.
The mystery of Christmas is that the love that brought all creation into being, the love that thunders in the skies and holds all of the cosmos together, including the billions of stars that outnumber all the grains of sand on earth, that love prefers to express itself and its glory through our flesh, as it did through the flesh of Jesus Christ. The invitation of Christmas is the invitation of St. John the Apostle, the son of thunder, who heard the heartbeat of God.
How do you hear and feel the heartbeat of God pulsing in your flesh? in the flesh of those around you? and in the flesh of the earth? Do you hear the heartbeat of God when you sit beside a warm fire while rain pours outside? Do you feel the heartbeat of God when you watch a loved one unwrap a gift you carefully prepared? Do you feel the heartbeat of God as the birds sing their songs of praise above you? in the darkness of the night as the wind blows through the trees? Do you feel the heartbeat of God, as I did, when we worshipped together in the candlelit darkness of our homes on Christmas Eve singing “Silent Night”? Whatever it is that helps you hear and feel the heartbeat of God, the words and witness of St. John the Apostle invite you to intentionally enter into that experience throughout this Christmas season and allow the glory of God and the wonders of his love to pulse through you and through your holy flesh. Amen.
 William Temple, Nature, Man and God: Gifford Lectures, Lecture XIX: “The Sacramental Universe” (London: Macmillan), 478; as cited in Christ In All Things: William Temple and His Writings, ed. Stephen Spencer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 130. Anglican Johannine scholars who have emphasized the flesh-affirming character of the Fourth Gospel include John A. T. Robinson, Richard Bauckham, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Dorothy Lee.