John 1:1-14 – CHRISTMAS – for December 25, 2016
“In the beginning was the word . . .” (John 1:1)
In the beginning was the Word
and the word was with God
and the Word was God . . .
For a few years at a church I once served, John sang Ava Maria at the Christmas Eve service. Sometimes, his name was listed in the worship bulletin; sometimes he unexpectedly appeared and we’d let him sing. Of course we would!
It was a United Methodist congregation, and yet there was John, crooning the most Roman Catholic of songs about a maiden and her child:
Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild;
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
John may have been a drug addict. He occasionally worshipped in the non-Ava Maria seasons, present for a few Sundays in a row, perhaps singing in the choir, and then—for months—disappearing. He randomly worked, with a mix of rumors that his family was wealthy and sent him money. The then thirty-something John drifted here and there. I’d worry about him. I’d forget about him. I have wondered, especially during Decembers, what happened to John? I recollect the last time I saw him was the last Christmas Eve I did at that small rural church.
In the darkened sanctuary, candles flickering, Advent banners lazily waving from the rafters, the ragtag congregation seated and expectant, John would sing. He didn’t rehearse. He had no accompaniment. Singing a cappella, the verses memorized, John mesmerized us. Hair disheveled, wearing a frayed sports coat, eyes bloodshot, he sang like, well . . . like an angel. I always imagined he’d sung Ave Maria as a youngster, with the adoring adults in a bygone church oohing and aahing John’s cherubic voice.
The word—the Word, as in Christmas’ Holy possibility and Holy longing—seemed to become flesh as John sang. With the passage of time, do I make it a more profound and sublime experience than it was all those years ago? Maybe. Maybe not.
I hear John sing.
And I see those faces in the dimly lit sanctuary. They are old and young, perfectly coiffed and casually dressed, first-time visitors and veteran pew-sitters. They are squirming in their seats, or barely able to keep their eyes open. They have had a dismal year and a delightful year. They are recently widowed or just married. One or more may have had a miscarriage. Some dread any trip to the mailbox where another crushing bill waits. The kids are desperate to get home to open presents. The adults are also desperate to get home, tumble into bed, and pull the covers over their heads.
How sweet and soaring the words! Music, like nothing else, touches the deepest corners of our souls. The Word, usually in spite of and always because of God’s love for us, can become flesh by way of a perfect baritone. We are, if only briefly, reminded of beauty. Reminded of hope. Reminded that the sum of our dreary broken hearts, and dull-witted accumulation of bad decisions, and our litany of excuses and failures, don’t matter in the Holy math of a merciful God.
For a few moments, John’s voice carried us. Reminded us. Encouraged those of us—all of us—who were discouraged. In the darkness of Christmas Eve, we believed in the light that would come to all people.
I can be cynical about what we’ve done to this fragile season. Cynicism is always easy.
I can be sarcastic about all of the nonsense concocted to celebrate (go into more debt over) this fragile season. Sarcasm is always easy.
I can be critical of the crass, brash stash—the Frosty the Snowmans and Santa’s oddly-named reindeer—that are hyped to falsely brighten this fragile season. Criticism is always easy.
All of us, I believe, listened.
How true and clear the song was . . . and cynicism lost its luster. How lovely it was . . . and sarcasm was discarded. How honest it was . . . and criticism faded as the tune filled the sanctuary.
In this fragile season, light the candles. Sing the songs. Read the oft-read scriptures. Welcome in the poor and the poor in spirit. Welcome in the ones who don’t want to be there and the ones that are always there. Welcome in the weary and frightened. Welcome in the drunk and derelict. Welcome in the losers and the unloved.
The preacher preaches.
The singer sings.
A Christ candle is lighted.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
And still does.