Christmas 2 January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-13                                                                               

Ephesians 1:3-14                                                                

John 1:1-18

Theaters in Elizabethan times, in which Shakespeare produced his plays for instance, were multi-storied affairs. The stages were like doll’s houses, with two or three stories, each open to the audience. Seating for the audience was also banked in tiers, like a stadium or opera house today. The richer people sat up in the boxes; the poor people – known as groundlings – stood on the ground level. Shakespearean plays also tend to have stories or tiers of action: the high drama – royal battles, Hamlet’s soliloquies – took place on an upper story of the stage; but even Shakespeare’s most serious plays had scenes between “lowlife” characters, which took place at the ground level of the stage and were designed to entertain the groundlings in the audience.

 I thought of all this as I read again the gospel for today, which is the prologue to St. John’s gospel. John doesn’t start out with accounts of shepherds and wise men. Instead he gives us this high drama philosophy: Christ is the Logos, the Word, the structure of meaning through which God the Father created the universe. He was “from the beginning” and “all things were made through him.” He “came into the world” bringing life and light.

Like a Shakespeare play, however, this high drama is interwoven with a lowlife drama for the groundlings. It involves John the Baptist, a scruffy guy dressed in wild animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey. John is wandering around in the wilderness across the Jordan River, shouting out warnings and prophecies about the coming of this light of Christ. It reminds me of a street preacher in downtown Chicago who used to shout through a bullhorn at the corner where I caught the bus home every night. “Every woman who wears pants,” the preacher would shout, “you’re going to hell.” The women waiting for the bus would giggle and raise their eyebrows. Groundling drama.

But you and I – or at least most of the people we know and love and interact with on a daily basis, indeed most members of our families – are in fact groundlings in this Johannine drama of salvation. We are absorbed in our daily commute, in the concerns of trying to earn a decent living, get dinner on the table, the kids’ homework done and their clothes washed for school the next day, our health needs met, the mortgage or rent paid, et cetera – and maybe a little time for ourselves, for rest or pleasure. I don’t make fun of this groundling life; for most people it’s a major struggle, it absorbs everything we have to give.

I talk to people who aren’t connected with a church and what they tell me is usually the same. It isn’t that they don’t believe in God or the importance of good moral values. It’s that they’re so consumed in the struggles of their daily lives that they just don’t have time or energy for church or for paying attention to God. Sunday morning for many people is the only real down time in the week – and even Sunday morning is increasingly invaded by things like swim meets, lacrosse and basketball practice, family obligations.

I have no solution for this state of affairs. Indeed, after more than 25 years of parish ministry, I find myself wondering whether all the things we try to do to attract people to church, to keep them engaged – Websites, “Come With Joy” Sundays, “branding,” marketing – don’t just end up adding to the scramble of people’s lives. It would be like John the Baptist just turning up the volume on this prophetic preaching there in the wilderness beyond the Jordan.

Because the point of St. John’s prologue is that salvation and faith aren’t in the end about what we do for God, but about what God is doing for us. Whether we listen to the preacher on the street corner or not, check out the Website or not, even come to church or not, the Logos, the Word, has come, is coming, will keep on coming, into the world, bringing true light and true life. God doesn’t give up.

“He came to what was his own,” John said, “and his own people did not accept him.” John was talking about the Jewish people of his time, but what he says could apply as well to people, including people who call themselves Christian, in our time. “I’m too busy,” says someone. “I don’t need it,” says another. “It doesn’t do anything for me,” says a third. But the Word just keeps coming.

Of course, some people, says John, did receive the Word. It was the outsiders of the time, the poor, the Gentiles, the outcasts. The Virgin Mary, for instance. Those “who know their need for God,” as one translation of the Beatitudes puts it. And it’s the same today. We come here every Sunday, or we stay here – stay with church for all its frustrations and shortcomings – people like us, because we have some wound, some emptiness, some sense of the need for meaning beyond and beneath our day-to-day groundling struggles – need for the light and life conveyed by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. My own feeling is that if other people really paused long enough in their busyness to think deeply, they too would find they need the Word of Christ to bring true life and light to their existence. But we’ve constructed a culture where this is difficult for people to do. We have too many ways to run from our own hearts and souls. We pander to shallowness with ever increasing shallowness.

And yet – and here is what this second Sunday after Christmas Day is about – and yet Christ keeps coming to us; he is always there, knocking on our hearts, offering himself. Offering us his grace and truth, his life and light, the power to become children of God. His Word is gentle and patient; he’s been at this, after all, since the beginning of Creation. If people want to ignore him, he’s not going to force them to listen. He can wait, wait for generations if necessary. But on the other hand, for those of us who are ready, he’s there, his arms always open and welcoming with peace and love.

Which is, in the end, what Christmas is all about.

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