Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflection Time

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Reflection Time

We all know that Advent is supposed to be a time of quiet preparation and reflection, but in reality for many of us Advent is a whirlwind of shopping and planning, checking items off our list, making sure we’re ready for Christmas.

For many of us, the chances of actually reflecting about the meaning of Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are pretty slim. Instead for many of us, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are times to gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, eat – and maybe drink - too much. And, for others of us, it can be a sad time when we feel the sting of who or what we’ve lost, or perhaps never had.

Despite the best efforts of the Church, most of us don’t have the chance to really reflect on the meaning of Christmas during Advent or on Christmas Day itself. Most of us just don’t have reflection time.

And maybe that’s OK – at least for a while. Maybe it’s OK to get wrapped up in the experience – to enjoy the decorations and the carols and hymns, to celebrate with friends and family, and even to feel the absence of what’s missing.

Maybe that’s OK because, of course, we need to actually have the experience before we can begin to reflect upon it.

In Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, he tells us that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the amazing experiences of the angel Gabriel’s appearance and the arrival of the shepherds to see her son, the newborn King. But, I’m willing to bet that having just given birth in less than ideal circumstances, right then and there Mary didn’t have a whole lot of time for reflection on what all this meant. Like all mothers of newborns, an exhausted Mary had too much to do. Reflection time would have to be later.

And the same is true for the first followers of Jesus. So many remarkable things happened so quickly. According to tradition, Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted an action-packed three years. In the middle of miracles and teaching and confusing parables and disturbing predictions, when was there time to reflect?

It was only after Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’ followers began to reflect on what his birth, life, death and resurrection meant for them and for the whole world. It was only after Jesus was no longer physically present with them that the first Christians had reflection time.

And in today’s lessons we heard two examples of the early Church reflecting on Christmas, reflecting on what it means for us and the world that, in Jesus, God became incarnate; that, in Jesus, God has come and lived and died as one of us.

First up is St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The best guess is that this letter was written around the year 55 – already a couple of decades of reflection time had passed since the earthly life of Jesus.
One of the problems in reading Paul’s letters is that we only have one side of the correspondence – we don’t know exactly what issues provoked Paul to write what he has. In the case of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul was writing to urban Christian communities he had planted in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

It seems that most of the people in these communities were gentiles, not Jews. But, since Paul had been away some other Jewish followers of Jesus arrived and tried, probably with some success, to convince these gentile Christians that they needed to observe Jewish Law.

The question of whether gentile Christians needed to obey Jewish Law was the hottest debate in the early Church.

Paul was not pleased to hear about what’s going on in the Galatian churches. Paul was provoked to write very clearly how he thought the birth of Jesus has changed everything. What Paul wrote is undoubtedly the product of many years of reflection time – time spent reflecting and praying on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Paul has come to the conclusion that Jesus has changed forever our relationship with God.
Paul writes that the Law had served as our disciplinarian. That was a very precise term in Paul’s day. A disciplinarian was a household slave who supervised the discipline of children. It seems like it wasn’t a particularly warm, loving relationship but it kept the kids in line.

But now thanks to Jesus all of that changes. Paul writes that, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Paul claims that the disciplinarian is no longer needed, because, through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children. So, now, along with Jesus we can cry to God, “Abba, Father!”

Imagine how much reflection time Paul needed before he could arrive at such a rich and beautiful understanding of Jesus and how his birth changed everything.

The Gospel of John was written near the end of the First Century – some sixty years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. The whole of John’s gospel, and especially the famous prologue that we heard today, is obviously a product of much prayerful reflection time – reflection about Jesus, about God, about philosophy, and much more. After decades of prayerful reflection time, the Gospel of John offers a cosmic view of Jesus’ birth.

John begins his prologue by echoing Genesis, “In the beginning…” John boldly attempts to describe some of God’s inner life, writing that the Word was with God, that the Word was God and that all of creation came into existence through the Word.
Again, undoubtedly after much reflection time, John is inspired by God to take the next leap. The Word of God who was with God, who was God, through whom everything came into being, the Word of God “became flesh and lived among us.”

And just like Paul, John has come to understand that the birth of Jesus, the birth of God’s Son, the Word of God taking flesh, has changed forever our relationship with God.

John writes, “(But) to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” John offers a more cosmic view than Paul, but he gets to the same place. The birth of Jesus has changed everything. Through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children.

Here’s one last example of someone who had put a good deal of prayerful reflection time into the meaning of Jesus’ birth. One of my favorite early Church Fathers is Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a bishop in the Second Century. So he lived and wrote a century and more after the earthy life of Jesus.

Irenaeus was especially influenced by St. Paul and built on Paul’s understanding of what Jesus’ birth means for us. Undoubtedly after much reflection time, Irenaeus developed his idea of recapitulation. In a nutshell, Irenaeus looked back to the Garden of Eden story and recognized that it was because of a human being that our relationship with God got broken.

Irenaeus suggests that in Jesus, God recapitulates creation. In Jesus, God unites with us and gives all of us a second chance. In Jesus, God fixes what got broken by sin, and adopts us as God’s children.

So, merry Christmas! For us here today it’s still Christmastide but for the rest of the world Christmas is over and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

But, for us Christians, Christmastide offers us an important opportunity. As some of the Christmas excitement begins to fade the Church gives us the opportunity for prayerful reflection time.

Today’s lessons offer us the inspired, prayerful reflections of Paul and John on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Plus, we have 2000 years of Christians such as Irenaeus and many others reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

And now, on this First Sunday after Christmas, you and I are invited to take some of our own prayerful reflection time, to really reflect on what it means for us that in Jesus, God has come and lived among us.