St. Stephen’s, Maple; Zoom Eucharist; December 25, 2020
Collects and Readings for the Day:
“In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
I speak to you in the name of Christ, the Word made Flesh. Amen
You may have noticed that the Christian Tradition has always had a complicated relationship with the End of Time. Most of the New Testament was written with the view that God’s culmination of history was just around the corner, a perspective that changed dramatically as the centuries wore on and Roman Europe became Medieval Christendom. In times of prosperity, we prefer to emphasize the stability of the here-and-now. We exaggerate Scripture’s promises of blessing to kings and priests, throne and temple, and downplay the impending judgement and consummation of the created order.
And yet, Scripture itself confronts us with the refrain, “in these last days…” For some reason, we keep returning to this End-times vision, almost despite ourselves. This afternoon we’ll even hear it quoted in the Eucharistic Prayer, which we’ve been using throughout Advent and into Christmas. In the grand scope of liturgical history, this is a very new prayer, only adopted by our National Church in 1985. Hearing the prologue to Hebrews, and praying Eucharistic Prayer 3 from the Book of Alternative Services, right now, on Christmas Day 2020, consciously situates us at the End of time.
Of course, making too much of the End times is just as dangerous as making too little of it. Some of us may have grown up with that excessive approach: I’m thinking of street preachers and televangelists and megachurch pastors who see the cultural pluralism as a threat, and denounce those as different as antichrist and targets for judgement. Some privileged Christians have done this as a Minority Report throughout our history, have used whatever current political disadvantage we’re experiencing as a sign that we are now in the End times when we weren’t previously, and that the author to the Hebrews and all other End-time predictions were wrong. These interpreters merely end up wielding apocalyptic imagery as a weapon against change, against the calls to justice, to share the table. But that would be a hard-fought exercise in utterly missing the point, forgetting just what the Christian witness to the End of the world actually is.
Clearly, I think the author to the Hebrews and the compilers of our prayer books were right. But what were they right about? What is the Christian witness to the End of time? Let’s back up a bit. This witness is rooted in the Jewish apocalyptic texts that preceded it, and was expressed in writings throughout the New Testament and beyond its canonical scope. A constant inspiration for these texts was indeed the various situations of crisis, rapid change and instability, possibly persecution, exile and loss, faced by God’s people. In other words, these communities were truly thrust into circumstances of undeniable powerlessness, confronted with the reality that they were the losers of history, reduced to “bruised reeds” and “faintly burning wicks.” And so they turned to the larger-than-life imagery of apocalyptic literature in order to share their experiences with the world. This imagery is meant to overwhelm and disturb us; it requires us to be honest about our own powerlessness in an overwhelming and disturbing time.
Which brings us to Christmas Day, 2020. At the end of a year that has overwhelmed and disturbed us, full of instability, change and loss. A year that has exposed our pretensions to invincibility, the ugliness of our racist assumptions, and the sheer impossibility of only looking out for “me and mine.” And yet, here we are, on Zoom wherever you are, hearing Isaiah, Psalms and Hebrews declare the victory of the God who “sustains all things by his powerful word,” who “has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” At the end of a year that feels so darkened by the unknown, we are given John’s word of hope that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
“In these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The Christian witness to the end of time is not just a far-flung “hope for the best.” Nor is it chiefly about our own powerlessness in the face of the world’s suffering. In fact, it isn’t primarily about an “ending” in the sense of a linear culmination of time, although that is a part of it. Rather, the “End of time” is chiefly about its eternal and cosmic purpose, meaning: to what end does this all of this exist? To what end did were and I and the whole created order brought into being in the first place?So this “end-time vision” isn’t firstly about us at all, as if either our far-flung optimism or sheer powerlessness had the decisive word on what any of this means. The Christian witness to the End of time is first and foremost about the One who made us and gave us our purpose. Our Apocalyptic story reveals that God comes to us, from beyond us. That God rescues us from ourselves, and restores us to ourselves and to each other, by ultimately and perfectly restoring us to Him. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
But here’s the great plot twist of Christmas Day: God rescues and restores us by becoming weak and powerless himself. “He has bared his holy arm”…a pudgy little popeye arm poking out of a swaddling cloth. He “sustains all things by his powerful word”…an new-born’s yawn or a cry to his mother for milk. When we sing, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth,” we really mean it, as ridiculous, foolish and bizarre as it seems. And the plot twist isn’t done: in a few short months, we’ll see that same outstretched arm again, hear those same anguished cries when “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified:” nailed to a cross, crying “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but ultimately declaring, “It is finished.” This God “faithfully executes justice,” offers compassion and comfort to our bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks, by becoming the bruised reed and flickering candlelight himself. But that “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
That darkness couldn’t even comprehend it: a darkness that only knows the power of violence and fear has no defense against a love that comes close to us, journeys with us precisely where we are weak, sick, alone, tired, “unimpressive.” God inhabits the powerlessness and dependence of a baby; our weak, mortal flesh is truly where God dwells among us. Like a manger in a cave, our honest humility about our need for love and care makes room for God to show the world his love through us, opens us up to others, and draws us into his great work of making the world right.
This is the purpose of time, the end for which it exists: “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” God united in love with Creation. This is the culmination of time, the end toward which we all journey: “See, the home of God is among mortals,” as John would later hear.
“He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
With this promise of time’s consummation written in our hearts, we too can gather around the manger, where the King of Glory is enthroned as mortal flesh. We can bring our hopes and fears, the cares and concerns of the world and of our lives, and bear witness to the God who comes to make the world right, even through our weakness and mourning, our joys and desires. We can come and worship, offer our selves to the Lamb who is worthy to receive our service and reign through us. Because he received all of us, took on every part of us, when he took on our flesh to dwell among us.
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.