Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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One of the things I find surprising among Anglican Christians is how little aware we are of the scriptural roots of our liturgy. This is even true for those of us who are clergy. Liturgy, the great prayer of the People of God which we celebrate not only on Sundays but everyday throughout the year, finds its being in the Word of God. In our liturgy, the Word of God lives and breaths among us. The Word invites us, draws us closer, much in the same way God drew Moses into his presence and claimed Moses, and the People of Israel, as God’s own. (Exodus 33:12-23)
Profoundly aware of the presence of God in liturgy, Christians have long practised customs reflecting the immediate presence of God. One example of this is in the Creed; it was custom — and still is in many places — for the priest and people to bow and even kneel upon saying the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.” Many places as well kept the old English custom of Salisbury Cathedral of reading at the end of liturgy the Gospel we heard proclaimed today, the opening of the Gospel of John. As the people heard the words “and the Word was made flesh” the entire congregation would genuflect and pause, acknowledging with wonder and awe the fact that God took on human flesh and became human in Jesus Christ. These gestures, these practices, all reflected a deep awareness of God’s graciousness in claiming us as his own. No longer were we lost, but now we are drawn close into the divine life of God.
While all of this may sound extraordinary, if not foreign to us, I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful for us to recall these customs and practices today. We live in a time when so many of us doubt our self-worth and goodness. So many women and men find it difficult to believe that we are worthy of God’s love, and of other people’s love. Yet we hear today in both our epistle and Gospel readings of a God who so profoundly loves us that he would break into our history and become like one of us. Through Jesus, God adopts us as his sons and daughters and makes us worthy to wear the garment of salvation as St. Paul says in Ephesians: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1) Maybe it is time we pause, bow our heads, and listen carefully to those words again: “And the word became flesh.” (John 1) Perhaps that small gesture might be in the right direction to help us recall we are good and beloved by God.
Although it is popularly believed that Christians have solely focused on human sinfulness, the reality is quite different. To be sure, there were writers and preachers over the course of history who sadly spent more time focusing on sin, but the core of the Christian tradition has long affirmed our goodness. Not only were we made good at the beginning of creation, but God affirmed our original goodness by being born like one of us and made it a point to raise us up through his death on the cross and resurrection even when we’ve failed to live up to our original goodness. As St. John says in his first pastoral letter, even if we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:2) Incidentally, for the longest time we Anglicans would recall these words each Sunday — and many still do when celebrating Eucharist according to the Book of Common Prayer — when the priest would speak the Comfortable Words. Although some of these acts may have seemed old fashioned, they reflected a deep awareness of God’s grace and tender care for us. Christians once remembered deep in their being that “nothing could separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38)
From the earliest days of Christianity, Christian teachers and spiritual writers affirmed the goodness of God’s adopted people. St. Paul first said it himself in the epistle we read today, a letter to the Ephesians. A century later, the great Church Father, St. Irenaeus of Lyon would pen one of the most famous lines from the early Church: “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” In contemporary language, his words are phrased: “God became human so that we might become like God.”
It was strongly believed, and continues to be believed by Orthodox Churches, that although we humans have the potential to do much harm, God’s love is so great that God works in the messiness of human life and draws us up to God’s very being and makes us like God’s very self. Fortunately, as a result of Anglican-Orthodox Christian dialogue, we Anglicans rediscovered this truth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No matter what we do, nothing can ever totally separate us from God. If we seek God’s mercy, the love from the very heart of God, we will not only be healed, restored, and forgiven, we will also be drawn up into the very being of God. We will become like God.
The prologue of the Gospel of John recalls this. John intentionally evokes our memories of Genesis by opening his text with “in the beginning.” He recalls that human sinfulness has hurt us and wounded our relationship with God. Yet he also knows that the love of God can never be held back. It is in God’s very nature to reach out to us, as he did hundreds of times before in history, and to raise us up to his side. What is key to John, and what lies at the very heart of Christian faith, is that God, the Word eternal, became one of us in order to redeem and sanctify us with his love. Ultimately, as we shall remember during Holy Week and Easter, God’s love for us will go so far as for God to suffer the pains of human suffering and death so as to raise us up with him in the resurrection.
You, my friends, are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Our human nature has been made glorious by Jesus’s birth as one of us. This is why we hold precious the birth of Jesus so long ago. For in being born like one of us, we were made divine. Amen.