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Christmas Day (C)

Notes & Transcripts

A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer

Fir-Conway Lutheran Church

The Nativity of Our Lord - December 25, 2000

Text: John 1.1-14

O magnum mysterium,

  et admirabile sacramentum,

    ut animalia viderent

      Dominum natum,

        jacentem in præsepio.

          Noe, noe.

*****

I

t was November of my senior year in college, 1997, when I first heard such wonderful words. Fall at Concordia College is an advent of sorts, as hundreds of music students in a half-dozen ensembles scramble to learn their portion of the annual Christmas Concert.

I was manager of the handbell choir that year, and our little group had set up its tables between the orchestra and the choirs. Tonight was the first time all the various ensembles would rehearse together; it would be our first glimpse of how our individual pieces fit into the tapestry of the Concert.

The first night, it’s hard to appreciate the many pieces fully. There’s so much stress and motion and confusion, and too little familiarity. Yet, this particular composition grabbed me, lifting my head up to see who was singing.

In the westernmost riser, the Concordia Choir was producing the most stunning music I had ever heard. The text was Latin; I only got a few words. But the melody flowed from its quiet, meditative beginnings through a soaring, breathtaking crescendo, and then returned to its tranquil center again. O magnum mysterium... O great mystery. I knew that much. And knowing those few words, my heart was drawn into the ebb and flow of the music, contemplating what I barely yet understood. It was only long after that first transfixing audience that I learned the mystery of which the choir sang so beautifully...

*****

O magnum mysterium,

  et admirabile sacramentum,

    ut animalia viderent

      Dominum natum,

        jacentem in præsepio.

          Noe, noe.

*****

“D

addy! Come and find me!” It was the fourth time that night that she had called her father to the game, and as the light came on in the hallway and steps approached, the little girl stifled a gleeful giggle, and squeezed shut her eyes.

“Nessa? Come out, come out wherever you are!” Yawning dramatically, he smiled to himself as he opened the door to her room: The large, wiggly lump under the covers told him that her strategy had not changed much since the last time she called out.

“Mr. Bear, have you seen my daughter Vanessa? Yes, that’s the one! She’s hiding, and I came to find her.” Giggles, then a hasty breath, then silence from under the covers. “In the closet? Oh, thank you Mr. Bear!” He checked the closet. He looked behind the toy box. He peered under the bed, and finally he grabbed the lump up into his arms, covers and all.

“Gotcha!” he cried. “Daddy!” the tiny one squealed, hugging him tightly.

After a long embrace, Nessa’s father laid her gently back down. “Time for you to go to sleep, Punkin. Should we pray?” The little girl folded her hands, and they recited the familiar lines... Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. When in the morning light I wake show me the path of love to take. Bless Mommy, bless Daddy, bless Mr. Bear...

As she floated off into sleep, Nessa basked in her daddy’s love; a love that was always a mystery to her, yet one which she lived and breathed and wrapped around herself like a blanket. That was enough for tonight...

*****

O magnum mysterium,

  et admirabile sacramentum,

    ut animalia viderent

      Dominum natum,

        jacentem in præsepio.

          Noe, noe.

*****

F

or as long as he could remember, the young man had been in love with the stars. As a little child, he would always answer with the absolute certainty of youth when anyone asked him what he would like to be when he grew up. Without hesitation, he would grin, “An astronaut. I’m gonna be an astronaut and go to the stars!”

Later in life, upon visiting the amusement park for the first time, he decided that perhaps it might be better to observe the stars from solid ground instead.

They were his friends, his companions. Their comings and goings marked the seasons of his life: Cassiopeia with her “W”-shaped throne; Orion the Hunter, drawing his cosmos-sized bowstring; The Big Bear and the Little Bear, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, searching the nighttime sky for a midnight snack. And the center around which they all revolved, Polaris-the North Star.

“Did you know,” he would often tell his Bible campers, “that when you look up at the stars in the sky, you’re looking back in time?” He relished the astonished faces and murmurs of disbelief. “That’s right. Those stars are so far away, that it took millions of years for their light to get here, to shine on us tonight. When you look up at them, you’re seeing what they looked like millions and millions of years before you were born.” Satisfied, he would then shine his Maglite up into the heavens, using its bright beam to connect the dots for his children until they could see all the pictures drifting by over their heads.

And now, tonight, he was again under the stars, and the wonder of the vast black ceiling washed over him again. Drawing in a breath of crisp October air and savoring it for a moment, he gazed up to the stars as God had created them an infinity ago, then down to the warm newness of a slender hand in his own. He understood neither the love that scattered the stars across the sky nor the love that somehow had filled his own spirit to overflowing. But he lived and breathed the wonder of it all, and he wrapped that wonder around them both like a blanket against the night chill...

*****

O magnum mysterium,

  et admirabile sacramentum,

    ut animalia viderent

      Dominum natum,

        jacentem in præsepio.

          Noe, noe.

*****

I

n the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us. The first chapter of John is my favorite in the Bible, bar none. In imagery that takes us from the first days of Creation right up to our present day, John recounts the good news of Jesus the Word in majestic, lyrical form.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years of my occasional preaching is that people want me to tell them what the Scripture means. They want to understand it, to know all about it, and I have been educated and prepared so that I might explain it to them.

I’ve learned Greek. I have a dozen different commentaries, and twice as many Bibles. My bookshelves overflow with books I’ve read, and ones I’m meaning to read, even as my brain overflows with ideas and concepts and doctrines I’ve learned in seminary.

And with all this arsenal of interpretive equipment, when I come to the first chapter of John I am forced to admit that I just don’t understand. The Incarnation-God being born as a human baby-sends everything I know about the universe reeling. I can’t wrap my mind around a truth so great, a mystery so profound.

And that is as it should be.

A mystery of God is a living thing. You can open it up, cut it apart, look at all of its parts in an attempt to understand it... but to perform such a vivisection will never reveal the secrets of the marvelous life that you sought to apprehend. Instead, it takes that life, putting the miracle to death in the name of knowledge and explanation. I will not do that to the magnum mysterium of the Incarnation this morning, and would not even if I had the piercing insight to do so. A mystery is something to be lived and breathed, something to wrap around yourself like a blanket, embraced in God’s power and love.

*****

O magnum mysterium,

  et admirabile sacramentum,

    ut animalia viderent

      Dominum natum,

        jacentem in præsepio.

          Noe, noe.

O great mystery

  and wondrous sacrament

    that animals should see

      the newborn Lord

        lying in their manger.

          Noel, noel.

*****

May the great mystery of Christ’s Incarnation enfold you in its warmth. May it be bread and butter for you, nurturing each of the countless mysteries through which his love is made know to you. May you return day after day to the animals’ manger, where a newborn babe who is God incarnate lies, the wondrous sacrament that gives us life. Christmas peace and joy to you. Amen.

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