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AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH

Until the sweeping liturgical changes of Vatican 2 each Mass celebrated in a Roman Catholic Church ended not with a dismissal or blessing but with the Last Gospel. Many Anglo-Catholic parishes observed this custom. The first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel were often mumbled at break neck speed in Latin or English. At the words “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” the celebrant genuflected and that was that.

I mention this not in a fit of nostalgia, nor to suggest that this practice be revived but rather to press a point. Whatever one’s theology of just how Jesus comes to us in the Sacrament, few would argue that there is not implied a very close and constant encounter between Christ and the Church, an encounter ensured and guaranteed “until he comes again in great glory.” Much will have been made of the rather informal way in which we approach Christmas. No doubt enough has been said during this season about consumerism, the commercialization of a Holy Feast and perhaps of the fact that many of us spend quite too much money on people who need little and far too little on those who need much.

When Christmas Eve comes we will be there reaching out to clutch a crumb of bread and to sip a drop of wine, as we do Sunday by Sunday and sometimes more often. In this Mystery, +Rowan Williams reminds us Jesus is pledged:

” to the end of time, never defeated by Satan’s forces, and that means that in this body Jesus works with all the limitations, the fragility, of the human beings he summons to be with him. He does not stop working in the church when we Christians are wicked and stupid and lazy. The church is not magic, much as we should love it to be -a realm where problems are solved instantly and special revelations answer all our questions and provide a short cut through all our conflicts. It is preeminently and crucially a community of persons…and so it is a place where holiness takes time and where the prose of daily faithfulness and, yes, sometimes daily boredom have to be faced and blessed, not shunned or concealed.” “Rowan Williams, WHERE GOD HAPPENS, New Seeds, Boston, 2005, page 108.

The beginning of the Gospel of John, often the Gospel for Christmas Day gives us all the chance to contemplate just who we encounter at the altar and in the shape of the child of Bethlehem. The Person who was enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin Mary and who uses Bread and Wine to encounter the community and each of its members is him “by and through whom all things were made.”

On Christmas Eve and each Sunday we walk down a corridor in company with all sorts and conditions of people to meet the Person who was here involved in creation before the Big Bang or however “all things were made”, and who will come again to judge both the living and the dead. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The writer of the fourth Gospel proposes something perhaps far too extraordinary for us to grasp, for if we did we would be driven to our knees in terror. Or is that too much? Perhaps it is because it is too much that Jesus disguises himself in such easy dress. A baby isn’t feared unless one is a Herod. Bread and Wine aren’t feared unless one is a glutton.

The danger we face is not normally that we will be terrified, but that we shall be bored by the “same old, same old” of it all. How often have we heard the story? How often have we received Holy Communion perhaps celebrated the Eucharist? Our temptation is to doubt that anything much may happen in the midst of such a mundane habit.

There was a time when Anglicans received communion much less often and prepared for each reception with great thoroughness. One may still discover in used book shops little Victorian manuals of devotion designed to help the communicant deal with sin so that they would not “presume to come to this thy Table trusting in our own righteousness.” Nowadays such preparation is often regarded as unhealthy, indicating a morbid preoccupation with sin.

Little wonder that we search beyond that which we have been given for answers to our problems and doubt whether there can be much practical to be found at the Table. Little wonder that the decisions of Synods excite us more than the Lord’s Supper. We can get ourselves full of hope or expectation about the outcome of a meeting and expect nothing from the encounter frequently made between Jesus and the community of faith in the Sacrament.

If we really take to heart that which the Last Gospel, that extraordinary preface to St. John’s Gospel has to say to us, we will be expectant, expectant in the face of what it meant for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us, expectant that in the boredom of the usual, even at Christmas when the usual is dressed up, God’s purposes are being worked out through the community of the church, even a church which contains the wicked, the stupid and the lazy.

In a sense Jesus imprisons himself in the narrow confines of this sacramental act. This is not to say that he is limited by such a self-emptying, but that he chooses for our sake to limit himself in, through and during this sacramental encounter whether it occurs in Canterbury Cathedral or on a hastily erected table in a refugee camp. It is surely appropriate that as we consider who this child is in Bread and Wine at Christmas and every day, we will “bow the knee” in awe and gratitude and give ourselves again to serve Him, content to let him evaluate the effectiveness of such service and to trust in his redeeming love. Were we so to do who can tell what miracles in the ordinariness of life would happen this Christmas.

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