Words for Adoption

Nativity window at All Souls

A sermon for Christmas Eve, midnight Mass, December 24, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:2-7 , Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14 , and Luke 2:1-20 .

One of my favorite sites on the Internet is called Save the Words. It is a promotional site, in some ways, for the Oxford English Dictionary. When you reach the site, the screen to your computer is quickly wallpapered with words. Words like, plenishere, essomenic, crassulent, and macellarious appear. As you pass your curser over this screen-of-words, you hear little voices. “Hello!” “Pick me.” “Yo, over here.” “Me, me, pick me!” The words want your attention because the words are lonely and are seldom used.

If you click on a word, the definition is shown, along with a sentence using that word. I learn that “adecimate” means “to pay a tenth of one’s income, especially to the church.” (Ahh, what a quaint, old-fashioned, seldom-used word—but I digress.) With each word, there’s a little form which can be filled out if you agree to “adopt” the word. If you adopt a word, you are promising to use the word, in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible, to the very best extent of your ability.” This is all a fun and very clever attempt to save words that are endangered, words that are disappearing, words that are forgotten.

There is power to words, whether seldom used or overused. They can enlarge or enliven. They can also cut or castigate. Words can be chewed. We especially rdo this with words of scripture—we chew them, like ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer and reindeer) chew the cud. We mull over scriptural words so we can (like the old prayer says) “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” In the manger, as elsewhere, there must have been a lot of ruminating going on the night Jesus was born.

The Gospel for Christmas Day proclaims, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The birth of Jesus is described as a word, a word spoken, a word whispered, a word offered. And in tonight’s Gospel we see how various people hear this Word of God. They hear it. They ruminate upon it. And they begin to respond to it. But I imagine the characters in our Gospel each hearing God’s word in a slightly different way.

For Mary, I think she hears a word of love. She hears of God’s love for her from the beginning of time. “Full of grace,” she is called. And so, she is calmed, and soothed, and told by God’s angel that everything is going to be all right. Fear is swept aside by angel’s wings and Mary dares to believe. God loves her. God is bringing new love into the world through her.

For Joseph, the Word of God, this little, tiny, baby boy of a word, it must have sounded like new life. I love the tradition that Joseph was a good bit older than Mary, and so as foster father, Joseph sees in Jesus a chance to live again, perhaps to get a few things right this time. Joseph may fallen into the habit of imagining God as some tired old man in the sky, distracted and disinterested. But here, God reminds Joseph that nothing could be further from the truth. The life of God is young and vital and new, always and everywhere. It has to do with energy and creativity.

The shepherds are listening, and they hear a word of excitement and adventure. Their lives are about to change. The day-in and day-out of tending sheep (while romantic and manly and all) must have gotten a little old. But God comes into their lives so that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Even the sheep will look different as creatures of God’s work and whimsy.

The angels are listening, and while they must have been used to the goings-on of God, even they must have been flummoxed by the birth of Jesus to an ordinary young girl, in an outlying area, in a lonely barn. But the angels hear in God’s word beauty, and so they add their words and make music. “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Or if they were like the angels in our new altarpiece and didn’t know Latin, they simply sang “Happy Birthday.”

God’s word is spoken and born, but it sounds different in different ears. Joseph is surprised when he hears how Mary has heard God’s word. Mary is surprised when she hears how the shepherds have heard God’s word. And King Herod is going to be very surprised at the sound of God’s word for him. I would probably be surprised to hear how God’s word sounds to some of you, even as I something about the way I hear God might surprise you. The Word that is made flesh can sound like a word of love, or rejuvenation, or adventure, or beauty, or many other things.

And so, what word do you hear? What word might you adopt, if you were given the opportunity?

Christmas is a season of adoption. God adopts us as beloved children. God adopts human flesh and becomes one of us. But we, too, are invited to adopt the Word of God, to adopt a word of God. What would you pick? Which will you have? The love of God? The new life of God? The adventure, the strength, the passion, or the beauty of God? It’s ok to ask for it. It’s ok to reach out and make it yours. It’s Christmas, after all.

Scripture says that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
May the Word of God speak to us and through us, this Christmas and always.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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