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Carrying Love, Being God-Bearers: The Feast of the Incarnation (morning)

Friday, December 25, 9:00 AM:
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

I came across an article in The New York Times a few days ago: “Once a Slogan of Unity, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Now Divides France.” You’ll recall the background context: the 2015 terrorist attack on the office of a small satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, following its mocking cartoon depictions of Muhammad. In response, French citizens declared “Je Suis Charlie/I am Charlie” in solidarity with the dead, the mourning, and those in favour of free speech. But five years later, reports this recent article, “Je Suis Charlie” fails to unite the population as it once did. In fact, it has become a source of division. What was initially meant to reassure people — saying “we’re in this together” — is now a litmus test: you’re in or you’re out. You have to pick a side: you either are, or aren’t Charlie. There’s not much room for nuance. As this debate has intensified, alongside both the secularism cause and more recent religiously-motivated acts of barbaric violence, the desired unity and empathy dissolves, and the slogan itself becomes a symbol of this division. Increasingly people are drawn to the fringes: on the edges of the Je Suis are those who are intolerant of immigrants. On the edge of the Je Ne Suis are supporters of terrorism. The graphic designer who invented the slogan now regrets it.

That is a case unique to France, but it’s far from the only one. You may have caught Gal Gadot and other celebrities mangling the John Lennon classic “Imagine” early on in the pandemic. What was sold as a meditation on hope was received as out-of-touch actors paternalistically trying to remain in the public eye. The pandemic has raised a sense of our shared plight and yearning for the common good. But it’s also led some idiots to torch local Walmarts and spit on cashiers. The singer Madonna called the coronavirus “the great equalizer,” broadcasting from her mansion, in a bath filled with rose petals. Our togetherness, on a large scale, is questionable.

What hope is there for us — what hope is there for our broken and sick world — when we can’t trust, or stand each other? Where do we look, if not to slogans, politicians, or celebrities? And even with the good news of a vaccine, we realize that we are nowhere near the end of our current predicament. And we know that even our religious institutions and systems are divided themselves, and at times, even predatory. Our gospel today points to the reality of division: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” So where can we turn? What can be the source of our hope and a sense of common humanity?

One Church of England cleric in an urban parish provides an honest assessment of the brokenness of our society, but also comes to a revelation of our hope. (A few of us in the parish have read or heard this recently, but it bears repeating.)

He came to the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
I saw him from the clergy vestry window
He was a single man with dark olive skin and a beard
He had a thick jacket pulled up around his ears and shadowed eyes
But it was the large shapeless pack on his back that raised my suspicions
We have all seen the photos of the perpetrators of terror in our newspapers.
Those seemingly innocent young faces with soft features that have packed explosives together with nails and other brutal shrapnel
Where was this lone man from — I had no way of knowing
Perhaps the Middle East — Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya —
or perhaps North African — Algeria or Morocco
or perhaps even Bangladesh or Northern Pakistan
We are told repeatedly to be alert. But was I being foolish or needlessly stereotyping?
Something about the way he was carrying the pack on his back was unusual
I am attentive to these signs. Who in this day and age in a crowded central London building is not? You look out for people who for whatever reason don’t seem to fit
He was not one of many homeless visitors — his clothes were too chosen, they were not ones he had slept with on the streets. And yet alone. No one with him, no group
And why that oddly shaped backpack?
I came to take a closer look
Down the stairs and along the north aisle
As I came towards him our eyes met and he shifted the pack on his back as though it were something heavy which needed protecting — a precious cargo or worse
And as I came closer and he turned away
And then I saw them — two feet and tiny shoes and then the child’s head which I had not seen before nestling on his father’s neck
And I heard a cry and I realized this father had turned to comfort the child he was carrying so tenderly that father and child seemed one
And I felt joy and instant relief
He was carrying his son — this precious backpack was a life — not death
In the place of fear and suspicion — a baby
God’s salvation
God’s Eucharist
God’s love for the world
Calling us into that same story
Of carrying love
Of being the God bearers
The peace of Christ carried on his father’s back.*

From where does our unity, our hope, our salvation originate? Not our systems, our isms, our efforts, our might, our vigilance, or our fears. Not even our common humanity, as important as that is. But if we go further and deeper we move from us, from “Je Suis” and finally to God, to the Word through whom we and everything came into being. “God’s salvation. God’s Eucharist. God’s love for the world. Carrying us into that same story.”

Our salvation arises out of an encounter with a most unexpected child…
Our salvation arises out of an encounter with a most unexpected child.

How does our strength, our pride, our confidence respond to the powerlessness of God?
How does our weakness, our fear, and our frailty, respond to the vulnerability of God?
Will we let the child soften our hearts? Will we get down on our hands and knees, and relearn the playfulness and creativity needed to address the many issues of our world, not to mention its absurdity?

In being with this child, will we learn the humility that leads to the Kingdom of God? Will we become children again, born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

“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.”

In the place of fear and suspicion — a baby
God’s salvation
God’s Eucharist
God’s love for the world
Calling us into that same story

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Richard Carter, The City is My Monastery (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2019), 135-136.