Christmas Eve 2017

Sermon by The Reverend Jodi Baron, Co-Rector, December 24, 2017, Christmas Eve, Year B, Luke 2:1-20

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

The summer between my first and second year in seminary, we all had to do a Chaplaincy Internship called Clinical Pastoral Education. The model was a ½ day of intense group work dissecting how we interacted with patients and where we helped them notice God, and the other ½ of the day “on the floor” making visits to complete strangers at their most vulnerable, worst day/s of their lives. Sounds fun, eh?

One of the floors I covered had patients who were suffering from some sort of lower gastrointestinal problems. Everything from Gastric-bypass surgery, to gallbladder surgery, to Crohn’s disease. The other floor was the maternity and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Both of these floors were in a level 2 hospital in Austin Texas. We didn’t see major trauma but what I did experience was a lot of people facing some of the scariest moments of their lives. Cancer diagnosis, pregnancy loss.

And then there was me.

A complete stranger with a badge that gave me access to their room to ask them questions about how they were processing what they heard the doctors telling them.

The goal of chaplaincy, at least for those of us navigating it for 11 weeks, was to make enough space in our hearts to carry the stories of people who were suffering.

To learn how to set ourselves aside and be present with God’s children who, most of the time, found themselves questioning whether or not God was even paying attention.

It was a really challenging and emotionally-draining summer.

About halfway through the summer, we had to do a project for our supervisor that reflected what we had learned so far and what we hoped to learn with our remaining time. It could be written or it could be something entirely other.

My supervisor was open to us exploring whatever medium we needed in order to uncover the deep learning we were experiencing.

Being a seminary student, I sighed deeply at the thought of writing one. More. paper.

My brain was tired after the steep 1st year of learning to get into the academic rigor of graduate level work.

She encouraged me to think about what gives me life and to use that as the medium through which I process my summer.

For me, creating things is important. Being creative is how I reflect and how I make sense of what is going on around me.

I decided to try my hands at making an icon. Because Icons are more than beautiful pieces of art. They are prayers used as windows into deeper truths about life and ministry and the faithful who’ve gone before. We have them all around our sanctuary, we have some in our study, they hold the candles behind our altar. There’s even one on your worship booklet of Mary and Jesus. I was taught that when you soften your eyes with an icon, it is meant to reveal symbols that point to God.

The image that kept coming to me was an ancient icon of Jesus, called the Pantocrator. The word, Pantocrator, is from the Greek word for “Almighty” or “All-powerful.”

I chose it because of what the word, “Pantocrator” means, but also for how it shaped into my prayers and gave me space to work out all the hurt, all the fear, all the pain, all the hopes, and dreams, that each of the patients I visited shared with me. It is the oldest image of Christ known to man and is displayed in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai.

When you gaze upon this image, one can notice the nuances of his face and how different and yet similar his eyes appear. One side of his face depicts his humanity and the other his divinity.

In his left hand he holds an ornamented book of the gospels and in the left, his hand is raised in the traditional position of pronouncing the blessing.

His robes have earthy blues and reds which represent his royalty. And he has a ring, or “halo”, of gold around his head representing holiness.

This halo is both Jesus’ declaration and profession. The three letters on the halo speak to us with words of hope and comfort; “The One Who Is,” “I am here for you” and “supports, helps”. Perfect. As a Chaplain, I served as one who stood in the gap until family members could arrive. I scratched, gently, at words that stood out to me in our conversations. I prayed with folks, or read scripture, or anointed their head with oil. I felt God’s presence with them whispering in those rooms, “I am here for you, to support you.”

In this dual nature of Christ, depicted in his face, for me, *is* the Incarnation.

God, here with us, Emmanuel.

God breaking through the barriers of our intellect and power and control… and becoming human.

In the icon I made, I didn’t use paint. I used magazines. I scoured pages of Home & Garden, People, New Yorker, and any other magazine I could get my hands on.

I searched for the colors depicted in that original icon that is displayed at the base of Mt. Sinai.

I tore the pages into tiny pieces and kept them sorted. I sketched the rough outline of the icon and left notes for which colors went where.

And then I began to slowly place each tiny piece of torn paper upon a piece of poster-board with Elmer’s glue and a prayer.

When I started to work on the golden ring around the head of Jesus… the ring that represents his holiness, I searched my pile of magazine scraps, for images of faces. Babies and grown-ups, people who had lost their hair due to chemotherapy, young and old… because for me… those lives… those relationships… filled with brokenness and love and heartache… from birth through illness, baptism, marriage, Eucharist, and even to death… those very human, very mortal aspects of our existence…

those things are the essence of HOLINESS.

And God… wanted to know how those things felt… God wanted to experience human relationship…to help us flourish more, help us know of the divine within us each.

To me, the beauty of God’s incarnation, that we celebrate tonight, is that he took on flesh in the most incredibly vulnerable and uncertain way, to dwell among us.

And through that vulnerability, that uncertainty, we heard in tonight’s gospel the angel gave the shepherds the message …”Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Do not be afraid.
I am bringing you good news.
For all the people.

Each year, on the eve of the Feast of the Nativity, we gather to hear the story of God becoming human, of God putting on flesh to dwell among us and taste what we taste. Feel what we feel. See what we see. To show us what the arch of the covenant between God and humans points toward.

Jesus’ mission among us was not one of comfort only, or of quick and easy answers to life’s challenges. I believe his mission was to reveal God is with us, in our relationships with God, with one another, and with all of creation.

I believe his life and ministry hold up a mirror to humanity to remind us in whose image we were created.

His ministry among us was to remind us that when we love one another, when we feed & clothe our neighbors, when we care for the widows and orphans, when we visit the sick and care for everyone, then…then…we experience human flourishing when we are ushering in the kingdom of God… living with God, in God, for God.

When we remember to create ministries where Kingdom Justice holds hands with Christian Charity, then we usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Then we see God’s creation with the loving eyes through which all this was made. Then we have the courage to love our neighbor as ourselves, to fight for those among us who have no agency. To speak for the voiceless and distribute power to the margins.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”