Christmas in August

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

If you think today’s Gospel is sounding a little familiar, it’s not the heat and humidity that is taking its toll. It’s that the Gospels for weeks, now, all seem to talk about bread. Maybe it’s because the Church thinks people are coming and going during the summer weeks, so we’d better have a lot of Sundays that suggest a similar point, to make sure everyone hears the message. Or maybe it’s because it’s picnic season, and we might relate better to the stories of Jesus’s feeding of the thousands, and then the disciples remembering that Holy Picnic, the way we might fondly recall a family get-together, an outing, or a special event that included food. 

Or, maybe it’s because the Church wants us to celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer.

What do I mean by that?  Well, Christmas is the primary celebration of the Incarnation, of the birth of Jesus, of the “Word made flesh.”  In late November or December, we lead up to Christmas, and then the Epiphany invites us to reflect on what Christmas (or the Incarnation) means for us.  And so–I’m wondering–if the scriptures are inviting us to have a little Christmas in August.

What made me think of this is my reading a book by the Paulist priest, Father Tom Ryan. And a quotation by Fr. Ryan made me think about the way I often speak of Jesus. I tend to write, and pray, and speak about “God coming into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.”  You and I know what I mean by that, but my phrasing is problematic, if we think about it theologically. God was already in the world. The Word was already in the world, just like the Gospel of John proclaims; just like Genesis implies.

And here’s where Fr. Ryan helps me.  He writes:

It is not so much that the Word entered the world; it is rather that the Word became flesh. In the Incarnation, Jesus in his flesh took the world as part of himself. The world quite literally became the body of God. Since God is identified with and discovered within this bodiliness, this fleshiness, this materiality, this sensuality, we have no right to dismiss the world as some second-rate practice field for the real life in heaven. The Incarnation states that there is no practice and nothing is second-rate. Life in this world is the life of God. (Thomas Ryan, CSP, Prayer of hearty and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Paulist Press, 1995.)

And so, it means that as people of faith, we should take our bodies seriously, and treat the bodies of others as sacred vessels. It means we should treat all of creation as potentially revealing the presence of God.

And it explains how when we eat blessed bread, we are eating the body of Christ, the life of God, given for us. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

These bready passages we read and reflect on in summer are to remind us of flesh-and-blood existence of God, of the giftedness of our bodies, the mixture of material with spiritual and spiritual with material, and to invite us to be more open to encountering God in ourselves, in others, and in the hear-and-now. Merry Christmas on this August 15.

But August 15 also coincides with another reminder of the Incarnation. In our tradition, the Prayer Book Calendar simply lists August 15 as Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics know it as the Assumption of Mary, imagining her death as being mysteriously taken up into the fullness of God’s love, and the Orthodox know it as the Dormition, of Mary’s “falling asleep.”

But just like the Virgin Mary did at the Wedding of Cana, and at Calvary, and in art history– the point her commemoration on August 15 is to remind us of the Incarnation. The Word became Flesh– by fleshy, noisy, painful, human means through Mary.

Beverly Gaventa is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches at Baylor, and she suggests at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.

Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. And that’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.

And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. We have all probably seen in icons and art the classic posture showing the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. Often, Mary is pointing very subtly to Jesus, as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”  (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

The Christmas Message is Rejoice: God is with Us.  
The Message of Mary is Rejoice: Christ will show you the way. 
The Message of Jesus is Rejoice: Eat and drink my body, my presence, my strength, my faith, and your own body will be brought to God in this life and in the next.

As the Psalmist sings so beautifully, “Taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are they who trust in him!” 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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