… and finally:
O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
…and the very familiar:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
It’s been 23 years, but I remember enough of my seminary Hebrew to be able to see each part precisely: “with – us – God”, customarily (and more felicitously) rendered, “God with us.”
For the first time since 1988, I’m not preaching on Christmas (or the eve thereof) this year. I have a homiletically competent (and then some) Assistant who needs the experience, so it just seemed the right thing to do. In thinking back over the preparation and delivery of twenty Christmas sermons, I’m aware that I’ve never taken my cue from the actual gospel reading for Christmas Eve—the familiar account from Luke (that still sounds not-quite-right in anything but the King James translation), with its decree going out from Caesar Augustus and its full-up inn, and its shepherds keeping watch, and its manger and swaddling clothes. This is where the narrative poetry is, and I love poking around in it.
But for preaching? For preaching, I’ve always been inevitably drawn to the cosmically mystical (mystically cosmic?) poetry of the prologue to John’s gospel, which is appointed for the Mass of Christmas morning, and for the following Sunday. At Lessons & Carols this past Sunday night, I read it, and could barely keep my composure. This is the gospel, not of a nativity, but of an incarnation. It doesn’t run the risk of ever being thought of as cute, and I can’t imagine how anyone could ever work it into a children’s pageant. But it is as shattering a piece of literature as has ever been penned. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt (literally, “pitched his tent”) among us.”
In what seems like a previous lifetime, in the early-to-mid 1970s, I was a graduate student in musicology. I wrote a 200-page thesis on twentieth century musical settings (unaccompanied) of the texts of the Latin Mass. In the roughly 500-year history of the Latin Mass as a musical form, certain stylistic conventions became virtually de rigueur for composers of different nationalities and different eras. The strongest of these conventions concerned the section of the Credo (Nicene Creed) that speak of the Incarnation. From et incarnatus est (“and he became incarnate”) through et homo factus est (“and was made Man”), the most complicated polyphony would suddenly slow down and become crystal clear, as if to say, “Listen to this. This is the really important part!”
So, in the years when it falls to me to seek a homiletical Muse for Christmas Eve, I invariably end up asking myself, “How can I explain the Incarnation in some fresh way? What image or metaphor can I use that will get through to somebody who’s maybe never thought about Christmas in this way? What can I say that will at least evoke the shocking enormity of the scandal—the scandal of the infinite becoming finite, the eternal becoming time-bound, the omnipresent occupying a quite definable set of coordinates on somebody’s GPS system, the scandal of the God who made us becoming one of us?"
Emmanuel. With us … God.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.