December 27, 2015. First Sunday after Christmas
Above all, clothe yourselves with love. (Col 3:14)
Clothe yourselves with love. On the day after Boxing Day, this third day of Christmas, Paul’s word to the church has an ironic ring. Because we are certainly, around Boxing Day, thinking about clothing ourselves…but we are not, perhaps, thinking much about love.
On December 26 we drove to Guelph to celebrate Christmas with our Guelph family. We were sailing along the 401 beautifully…and then we hit Halton Hills, and the outlet malls. And the 401 turned into a parking lot. For at least 2 kms we crept along in the company of the shoppers until finally the outlet mall exit appeared and most of our fellow-travellers peeled off to sit, again, on the exit ramp. We are all eager to clothe ourselves on Boxing Day: this is what you do, when Christmas is over and the sales have begun.
The problem is this: Christmas is not over. It has only just begun. This is the third day of Christmas; it goes on for 12 days—12 days of feasting and cider and carols and chocolate; 12 days to mark this truth: Christmas day is only the beginning. On it a love is born so deep and so broad and so high…and so concrete… that it will take not only the next 12 days but the rest of our lives to learn it.
There is a Christmas ad making the rounds on Facebook, put out by St. James Church in London, England. Maybe you have seen it…
A little girl looks through her telescope into the sky. She sees only the moon. Dear God, she writes, do you exist? Dear God, do you love me? She folds her message into a paper airplane and launches it to the moon. But it crashes on her roof, again and again, until there’s a whole fleet of paper airplanes marooned on the shingles, and she leans out her window and heaves a great four-year-old sigh. Then from the sky a baby appears—a real, quite adorable, baby. In a manger, floating down from heaven on balloons. The baby lands in front of her Christmas tree. “From God,” the card says, “with love.” For God so loved the world…
See how real the love of God is! See how concrete. It is as real as a baby held in your arms, as demanding, and as full of grace. Like a baby, the love of God born among us in the child Jesus makes a claim on our lives.
This love, the claim it makes and its surprising concreteness, is told already in the Old Testament.
Hannah, in today’s reading from 1 Samuel, is given a child after years of waiting and longing. And the first thing she does, when her baby is weaned, is to give him up.
She takes him to the temple and gives him into the service of the Lord. “And the child was young,” 1 Samuel says. The love that God has given into her life in the child born to her is expressed, for Hannah, in this act of giving up the child. God’s gift to her calls from her an answering gift, a difficult self-giving.
Hannah goes to visit her child every year at the temple, and she makes for him every year a little robe. Every mother; every grandmother knows the love Hannah has poured into that little robe. Hannah clothes her child with love.
The love of God that is born among us in the child Jesus at Christmas time does not ask us, first of all, to go out and buy some clothes for ourselves. The love of God at Christmastime asks us to think not about ourselves, but about others; to give not to ourselves but to and for others, because God has given himself to us.
“Above all, clothe yourselves in love.”
This is the gift Christmas offers us: That we may know ourselves loved, really, truly, in the particular every day, by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and that we may love in our turn.
That we may love not only with our hearts—though that is where love starts, that is where Christmas starts, in the joy of this birth that fills the heart, joy sung to the skies at Christmastime in carols and candles and prayer—that we may love not only with our hearts but in our lives.
This is Paul’s vision, in the beautiful reading from Colossians that we heard today. Paul sees in the love of God given to the world so concretely in the outstretched arms of his son—arms of the baby reaching out from the manger; arms of the man reaching out on the cross—Paul sees in the love of God born (borne) thus in Jesus in and for the world, the possibility of a new community, an answering love, a people shaped by grace.
It is a community clothed concretely—and not sentimentally—with love. It is the community of Good King Wenceslas, who went out into the snow and the howling wind on Boxing Day, the Feast of Stephen, to take food to a poor man. Why do we sing about Good King Wenceslas on the day after Christ’s birth? Because he lives the love that is born among us in Jesus at Christmas. It is a love known in flesh and wine and pine logs and a hard slog through driving snow, because the Word was made flesh at Christmas. The first thing we are called to do in our love for the baby born in Bethlehem is to go out and feed the hungry man; to light a fire in a dark place, to stretch out our hands to bless in the flesh, as God in the flesh has blessed us.
“As God’s chosen people therefore,” Paul says, “holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.” Bear with one another, and if you have a complaint against anyone, forgive each other.
This is what love means; this is what Christmas means. Feed each other. Be kind to each other. Be patient. And forgive. Paul places forgiveness at the heart of Christian community—because that is what Christ did for us. The baby whose arms reached out to the world from the manger became the man who stretched out his arms for the world on the cross. It is no accident that Jesus in Luke’s gospel goes up with his parents to Jerusalem on the feast of the Passover. He will not go to Jerusalem again on the feast of the Passover until he goes to the cross.
The love of God for us known first in the child whose arms reach out to the world from the manger is the love that is known finally in the arms lifted up to bless and to forgive on the cross. Forgive each other, today, tomorrow, the next day— because that is what God does in Christ for us. This is the claim of love.
This is what God gives us, in the child born at Christmas. He gives us the ability to love as he has loved us—in flesh and blood, with wine and pine logs, with small (or large) acts of forgiveness and trust.
Paul sees springing greenly from the manger this Christmas a whole people, the people of God. He sees for us the joy of Christmas growing greenly not just these 12 days, but every day of our lives.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul says to his church and to ours—that peace to which in Christ’s arms stretched out you are called. Love each other, and feed each other, and forgive.
And sing! Sing together, and sing in your hearts. Sing as you sing at Christmastime, every day of your lives. For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love. Sing with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; let your lives be a thanksgiving-song to God.
This is my prayer for Christ’s people: that we may be Christmas people, now and always. That we may sing the joy of the love that has come among us at Christmastime; that we may live, in flesh and blood, an answering love.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love.
Gerard van Honthorst: Adoration of the Shepherds