Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-14
Listen to the Audio
When I was a child I loved Christmas. The candles, the carols, the filled stockings, and the way the presents appeared under the tree on Christmas morning, but something that I remember most vividly was this—
We had a nativity set in which the baby Jesus was it’s own piece and so at the beginning of December we’d set up the whole nativity scene, the blue back-drop with the stars embroidered onto it, the wooden stable, the magi and the shepherds, the little sheep, Mary and Joseph and the little twig manger. But then, we wouldn’t put baby Jesus in the manger. Instead, Baby Jesus would stay safely wrapped in tissue and gently stowed behind the manger, waiting for Christmas morning.
The job of baby Jesus placement was coveted, being the oldest it was my task for a number of years before others were old enough to take turns or sneak down hand-in-hand together to do the sacred task. We would tiptoe into the living room, the light of the wood stove giving a soft warm glow. Reaching our little hands behind the stable we’d pull out the Christ Child and gently place the swaddled body in the manger, ready for Christmas morning and the proclamation that, “Christ indeed is born!”
On this Christmas Eve, people gather across the globe, anticipating tomorrow. People gather with family around a dinner table, in churches with candles, around the lit tree. People gather huddled up under awnings on the street–sharing that extra holiday warmth, people alone might light a candle and mark this evening with longing. Waiting, anticipating, longing…what is it we’re longing for?
The longings, the hope of the spirit of Christmas and Christmas Eve, that reaching and looking for the Hanukah lights, the presence of the darkest day of solstice–permeate far beyond those who consider themselves people of faith, reaches across the barriers from devout, to spiritual but not religious, to the atheists or agnostics that come to church because they know how important it is to Grandma.
This spirit, these longings, these desires, are human and they are wrestled with and answered, in beautifully various ways, in different faith traditions, in many human and divine responses across the globe.
In the frame of the Christian tradition, this longing is expressed through these stories of Christ, Divine Light, being born here and walking on earth with us. Christianity has gotten itself a bad name over the centuries by making this story be a singular one, that Christ is the one and only expression of God in the world. This exclusivism has led many people to leave Christianity and the church, and I understand this. I, like many of you, am reaching for a way of faith where we don’t have to have choose one way in exclusion to other ways.
As a Christian, who strives to be rooted in my tradition, with wide-open arms and deep respect for other traditions, I can ask: How is the birth of Christ, the icon of my religious tradition, important for the world as a whole?
And more and more I believe that the answer is not that Christ is special because of his uniqueness. It’s not about Christ being the ONE way to God, instead—the story of Christ’s incarnation here on earth is powerful because of the embodiment of a universal principle, a pattern: the pattern of love incarnate.
This principle of incarnate Love, the sacred with us, is what has been practiced in faith traditions throughout time, it’s the very thing that is etched in the mountain peeks, it’s what breaks through in the darkest places, it is the Divine Love is always pressing and urging to be received, through whatever venue we can hear and feel and receive it.
In the Swedenborgian tradition, the lens through which I practice Christianity, we’re taught that the entire natural world is infused with spiritual reality, and that the Divine is always pressing and urging to be received. That the Divine come to earth, to this natural world in the body of Jesus Christ, yes, and that the Divine is infused in all things of this natural, bodily world.
God’s presence, Emmanuel God with us, is here with us. The Love, the Light, always breaking in, even here and now.
When the Gospel according to John tells of the Christmas story we hear these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word Was God.
Through the Word all things came into being and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being.
In the Word was life,
And that life was humanity’s light—
A Light that shines in the darkness,
A Light that the darkness has never overtaken.
Then later in the passage we read: “The Word become flesh and dwelt among us; and we saw God’s glory.
What do you think when you hear this passage? What are there words and images that jump out at you? Light, darkness, word, flesh? I was talking to one of you the other day and we were remarking on the strangeness of this language, “word” becoming “flesh”? And wondering if that image is off-putting to some, as is potentially the word “incarnation.” “In-flesh”? What does that even mean?
So I went and dug back to the original Greek text of the gospels to see if that could help us out and I found that the word for flesh, sarx, is more than just this flesh of bodies. Some of the definitions we’re given are yes; body and bodily condition, but then we get earth, earthly, fellow humans, and kindred. Material reality, matter its very self.
So the Word, the Logos became flesh, sarx, and dwelt among us. The Word, the logos, divine utterance, comes and dwells among us, the Divine making itself visible here and now in the natural world.
As one of my favorite poets and theologians Madeleine L’Engle said:
“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
The incarnation, seen in this birth of Christ, gives witness to this expansive truth–God is always trying to make love visible, and tangible, and present. Showing us in yet another way that the sacred, the Divine, the Love, is always urging and pressing to be received, never forcing itself on us, but inviting us, stirring our hearts, moving in our longings, inviting us to draw towards and be vessels of the Light. And the continued miracles pulse through our faith stories and traditions throughout time, the Divine love that is right here, right now, that Light is constantly breaking into the world.
We certainly can see this force at work in the garden around us, as plants continue to reach their roots down and leaves and flowers reaching for the sun. We see this force alive in the people who are working for good in the world, from white helmeted volunteers who are pulling people out of the rubble in Aleppo, to Annette’s open arms and big hugs to all of our neighborhood.
We see and feel this in-breaking of the Love and the Light when we look at the cozy candles or tip-toe down to the fire-lit living room on Christmas morning. And this in-breaking goes so much further than that…it goes out to the broken bodies, the battered hearts, the abused land, love is constantly pushing and urging and renewing and healing. The promise of incarnation is this pattern—that God shows up in the midst of it all, and loves, and this love is born inside each of us and calls us to love.
So this evening, as we hear the stories of Christ’s birth read, as we sing familiar Christmas hymns, look for the pattern of love breaking through, listen to the story with an ear for the sacred in the ordinary, God’s messengers coming to grubby shepherds and humble sheep. Divinity coming into the world as a vulnerable baby, light coming into the darkest places. And as we go out from here, and into whatever the evening, tomorrow, this New Year brings, look for the Light breaking through, be part of the Love breaking though, keep your eyes and hearts and minds open, because that universal pattern of incarnation is here, the Source of Love and Light expansive, and the immediacy of the sacred pervasive. Emmanuel, God is with us.