This is the Christmas message for 2019 from the Right Rev. Robert T. Giffin, Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Mid-America.
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
We have many tattoo parlors in San Antonio, as do many cities our size. In case you missed it, we are the seventh largest city in the country! However, those who receive tattoos often botch the job. Something gets “lost in translation” or taken from translation software that was assumed to be correct. Other times, it is simply a case of the client and/or artist not being able to spell!
There is the example of a man who had ”Jenius” tattooed on his forehead – spelt with a J. Yet another asked for the Mandarin symbol for “live and let live” but instead got one for “sweet and sour chicken”. Lastly, a woman used a website to translate “I love David” into Hebrew but ended up with a tattoo which said “Babylon is the world’s leading dictionary and translation software”.
So we quickly learn from these examples that translation is not risk-free. So the question is this: how was God to translate his life and purpose into something we could understand? Answer: live among us as one of us.
When San Antonio’s south side poverty, shootings and other violence were discussed recently in media outlets, a group of Christians from a north suburban church were talking to a local priest. “What can we do?” they asked. “Go and live there,” he responded.
So “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.”
John Chapter 1 has a glorious familiarity about it. I love it! It hits the button every time. This is the heart of Christmas; this is the heart of faith. And I particularly love the way the picture of Jesus, of the incarnation, emerges from the mists of the early verses. We start with the rich, enigmatic picture of the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God and was God, and through whom all things came into being. That’s quite a CV.
And then (a little more clarity coming through the mist) what came into being in him was life, life itself, nothing less. And that life was light not just for the favored few, but for all people. That life, that light, was on its way into the world. John is saying: Can you see it, a light beginning to glow in the darkness?
And then an interlude, a release of tension, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. The same came to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” Can you see it now, John says, a little more clearly as the mist evaporates? This true light, which is for everyone, is there on the horizon, coming into view right now.
And then, suddenly, “He was in the world,” the one through whom the world came into being. Not everyone was at the arrivals gate; not everyone accepted him. But those who did, boy, was that good; they became children of God. And then finally, standing clear and true, all mists dispelled, John declares: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), – ‘yes we really have!’ – full of grace and truth.”
When I was in my teens we went on a family vacation to Niagara Falls. It was during at the beginning of our Christmas break, and the weather was very foul indeed. The fog heading into the Falls was so thick that my father could barely see the road except for occasional headlights advancing from the opposite direction. There was sleet and ice everywhere. There were more than a few accidents that began to appear on the sides of the road as we neared our destination. We arrived at the Falls after this hair-raising car trip only to find the Falls hidden in the icy mist and rain. We settled into our hotel, and I remember how disappointed I was that nothing could be seen after the long journey. I was up early the next morning and leapt to the balcony of our hotel room to look for the Falls. The icy rain had gone, but the mist was still there and we spent the day shopping and walking around, occasionally looking to see if the Falls had appeared. Then the next morning I was up and off to the balcony again, but still no Falls – until I dared to look above the mist, And there, magnificent in the early morning sun, was the top of the Falls, pouring powerfully downward. It was a heart-pounding moment. Finally I beheld the glory of the Falls, full of grace and its own truth.
That is how it feels to me as Jesus comes out of the Johannine mists in this famous gospel. Not for John the call of Mary, the misunderstanding over her pregnancy, the wretched journey to Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds, the Magi. John is concerned with the big picture, the cosmic significance of what is going on here. This is no small town deity pushed to the edge and trying to get a mention in the weekly newspaper. This is a God of extraordinary scale, emerging from the mists of time and pouring his life and purpose into a human life, the life of Jesus of Nazareth. One life, lived so close to God, so saturated in God, that very soon people who’d known him were saying he must have been the Son of God. No other description seemed to fit.
But this world that Jesus inhabited was as hard and fragile as it is now. Men and women were as confused and dangerous then as now. The human heart is always in need of divine surgery. As Studdert-Kennedy, the First World War chaplain, wrote, ‘the hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world.’ As human beings our gentleness with the child we love seems only to be matched by our capacity to hurt and destroy. The evidence is in the news every day – it is endless.
So it is not sufficient to be moved by the magnificent vision John puts before us. The incarnation had a purpose. God’s strategy was to move in, live deep, and share everything. Jesus lived up to his elbows in human need; his life was embedded in the lumpy contours of everyday life. And there he brought healing, hope, release, forgiveness, and renewal of every kind to people often bruised and broken.
Which is where we come in. “What can we do?” “Go and live there,” said the priest. God’s call through his Son, is to move in, live deep, and share everything. Which is why I am really pleased to see so many churches getting involved in debt counseling, credit unions, food banks, street pastors, homeless shelters, school mentoring, walking alongside ex-prisoners and so on, as well as a million acts of kindness every day by ordinary Christians just getting on with it.
God has translated his life and purpose into something we could understand, and we do the same when we reflect his strategy of deep engagement, when our lives demonstrate that love. God has moved in, lived deep and shared our lives. He calls us to do the same in our own sphere of life and influence, small or great. Some here today can make considerable changes in the fabric of civil society; others here can make a real difference in the life of one other person. But the call to enlist as a change-maker is to everyone, whoever we are, wherever we are…with or without a tattoo.
Merry Christmas to you all.