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Christmas 2016

One word is the topic of this Christmas sermon: "character." The first sermon I ever preached was in January 1983, and I touched on all the readings, and then some. As the years have passed, I have focused more and more, on two readings, one reading, then only a couple of verses, and tonight — just one word. If you look at the reading from the Letter to Hebrews, not by St. Paul, incidentally, you will see these words: “he is … the exact imprint of his being…” We all know that no translation can perfectly render what is said in one language into another language. The word translated as “imprint” is also “image” or “representation” in all the Romance-language Bibles I looked at. The Latin says “figure”, while the Germans always use the same word, which means “exact picture”.

Character
Christmas 2016
Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
Paris, France

The first sermon I ever preached was in January 1983, and I touched on all the readings, and then some. As the years have passed, I have focused more and more, on two readings, one reading, then only a couple of verses, and tonight — just one word.

If you look at the reading from the Letter to Hebrews, not by St. Paul, incidentally, you will see these words: “he is … the exact imprint of his being…” We all know that no translation can perfectly render what is said in one language into another language. The word translated as “imprint” is also “image” or “representation” in all the Romance-language Bibles I looked at. The Latin says “figure”, while the Germans always use the same word, which means “exact picture”.

It is important to know that no language can define what happened in Israel 2000 years ago. The people then tried as best they could to describe what it was that they met in Jesus of Nazareth. The birth stories, with dreams and astrologers and refugees into Egypt, or with angels and shepherds, try to convey the wonder of it, with every shred of the Old Testament that they could muster. The story of Mary is at the heart of them, and what does it mean that she was a virgin? People then as now know that such things don’t happen, but this is a story bursting at the seams of what any human language can portray.

Some people today express discomfort at reciting the creeds, which are thumbnail sketches of this story. They are not propositions that require our assent, however. The creeds condense the biblical language to convey the essence of the story. They keep the wonder intact, and we need regular reminding that we can never grasp it completely.

All through the gospels, and then the epistles, this straining, this pressurizing of language, continues. The word I want to talk about today in the Letter to Hebrews is literally “character”. That is the exact Greek word, “character”, that is translated as image, representation, picture, figure. Now the Greek dictionaries say that, at the time, “character” referred to the imprint of a seal. When I license a person here at the Cathedral, say, to distribute the Communion, I sign the document and then use a machine to make a raised seal over my signature on the paper. When I ordain someone deacon or priest, or authorize a priest to stand in my stead as rector of a church, I also add a wax seal. I heat the purple wax, then pour out just enough, and immediately press my seal into it. If I don’t mess it up, it leaves a permanent imprint of my seal, which shows a bishop’s hat —a miter — two keys, and the Latin inscription that says, “The seal of the Bishop in Europe.”

Now Jesus is the character of God. Through Christ’s humanity God leaves a seal on creation, an imprint that shapes us from a blob of stuff to a sign of unconditional love. We can barely understand this. Can the pot say to the potter, “you don’t know how to throw a pot”? And yet through this straining language we can grasp just enough. “And the Word was made flesh” — God stamped the seal of the One through whom all things were created upon the creation, beginning with you and me.

Back to “character” for a moment. We use the word today to talk about the effect a person has on others, on the world about. It is the imprint we leave not on ourselves but upon the lives of others. Jesus is the character of God. Look at the images here, the representations of the Story. Over there is a baby, born away from home and whose parents had to become refugees. Behind me is a man on a cross, beautifully pained in the pre-Raphaelite style. The images in this church show us God’s character. Look at God All-Mighty, strung up and hung out to dry. The reality of crucifixion was dreadful, not pretty like that. It was no work of art. The character of our God is not only the power to bring into being all that is, but also the willingness to become as vulnerable as you and I are to the terrible things we do to each other, between our birth in blood and sweat and cries, and our deaths in cowering resignation.

Doesn’t sound like “merry Christmas” tonight, eh? But in this darkness there is a light. The story promises hope. It says that yes, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death, but that we are never alone in it, and that the valley leads to a brightly shining mountaintop. The Story is about being transformed from violent apes to glorious human beings. God became vulnerable to our lives that we might become invulnerable like God. And in this invulnerability, to become as compassionate as the One who was born in a barn, a refugee who came back home to speak a Word, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to die horribly so that we might live gloriously. That we might be — at last! — truly happy.

So we have every reason to make merry tonight. We have God’s seal of approval on our hearts and lives. We have God’s promise of life and joy, starting right now. We have Christ Jesus, alive with us and living in us.

So let us make merry! Let us be merry!

Merry Christmas.


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