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In the year 1547, Henry VIII died and his young son Edward VI ascended the throne. Even though Henry had broken with the Roman Church several years before, the Church of England continued to use the Latin Rites for services, but a few years after Edward’s reign began, in 1549, the First Book of Common Prayer was introduced. Since that time – about 468 years – we as Anglicans / Episcopalians have been “reading to God.” It is said that our ability to worship is extremely hampered as our eyesight begins to fail, although, with faithful attendance over the years, most Episcopalians know the various Rites by heart.
What has this got to do with today’s message? Well, I’m simply laying the ground work for “reading” a lengthy passage to you. Why? Because we often speak about the Incarnation, that is, God becoming man in the person of Jesus, but it is not an easy concept for anyone to grasp. To a degree, we understand the “How?” of the process: God, through the Holy Spirit, came to the Blessed Virgin Mary and she conceived a Son, the very Son of God; but the “Why?” behind the Incarnation is even more of a mystery. And so – this is where the lengthy passage comes in – the year is 1996 and the setting is L’Arche Daybreak, a community for people with mental disabilities. The author would die suddenly in September of that year. He writes:
“After caring for Adam for a few months, I was no longer afraid of him. Waking him up in the morning, giving him a bath and brushing his teeth, shaving his beard and feeding him breakfast had created such a bond between us-a bond beyond words and visible signs of recognition-that I started to miss him when we couldn’t be together. My time with him had become a time of prayer, silence, and quiet intimacy. Adam had become a true peacemaker for me, a man who loved and trusted me even when I made the water for his bath too hot or too cold, cut him with the razor, or gave him the wrong type of clothes to wear.
“His epileptic seizures no longer scared me either. They simply caused me to slow down, forget about other obligations, and stay with him, covering him with heavy blankets to keep him warm. His difficult and very slow walk no longer irritated me but gave me an opportunity to stand behind him, put my arms around his waist, and speak encouraging words as he took one careful step after the other. His spilling a glass full of orange juice or dropping his spoon with food on the floor no longer made me panic but simply made me clean up. Knowing Adam became a privilege for me. Who can be as close to another human being as I could be to Adam? Who can spend a few hours each day with a man who gives you all his confidence and trust? Isn’t that what joy is?
“And Michael, Adam’s brother: what a gift his friendship became! He became the only one in the community who calls me “Father Henri.” Every time he says that, there is a smile on his face, suggesting that he really should be a Father too! With his halting, stuttering voice, he keeps saying, pointing to the large stole around my neck, “I . . . want . . . that. . . too . . . Father.” When Michael is sad because his brother is sick, or because he has many seizures himself, or because someone he loves is leaving, he comes to me, puts his arms around me, and lets his tears flow freely. Then after a while he grabs me by the shoulder, looks at me, and with a big smile breaking through his tears he says. “You are… a … funny… Father!” When we pray together, he often points to his heart and says: “I feel… it… here… here in my heart.” But as we hold hands, there is that immense joy that emerges from our shared sorrow.”
Speaking of the Incarnation, Martin Luther wrote, “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.” So how are we then to catch even a glimpse of it from this passage?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The Word.. God.. became flesh – Jesus – and walked among us. Billy Graham said in a sermon, “I’ve seen the effects of the wind, but I’ve never seen the wind. There’s a mystery to it.” We can see the wheat as it blows in the field, we can watch the flag flutter, but that unseen force is invisible to us. In a similar manner, we cannot understand that Unseen Force which is God. We can’t sit and watch as He works for the fulfillment of His purposes or know the workings of His mind – it is a mystery. As the Lord says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” and that mystery is no less evident than when it comes to the Incarnation. Yet, like the wind – we can’t see it, but we can see the effects – we may not be able to understand the Incarnation, but we can see its effects. Like a drop of red dye in glass of clean water, it begins to seep in and permeate everything. It changes things from the inside out and the outside in.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic Priest. He authored over forty books, not a one of which would be a waste of your time, and his writings are revered by both Catholics and Protestants alike. A Christian Century magazine article noted that “Both mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy named Nouwen as the author they most often read, other than the Bible, in their work as pastors. Notables as respected and diverse as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S. Senators and TV’s Fred Rogers (“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood”) have publicly acknowledged the considerable influence that Nouwen’s writings have had on them personally.” He falls in the list of great theologians – particularly of spirituality – of the 20th century. He taught at some of the most prestigious universities: Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and he was sought after all over the world for speaking engagements, retreats and spiritual direction.
About ten years before his death, he moved to the L’Arche Daybreak community where he lived in very sparse quarters and everyday he cared for Adam, his brother Michael, and many other severely mentally challenged individuals. Those were his words that I shared with you about the two boys. This great theologian, Fr. Henri – sought after all over the world – set it all aside, humbled himself, and cared for those that the world cared nothing about.
The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus is a mystery, the effects are not. The Incarnation is God – the Creator of heaven and Earth – setting it all aside, humbling himself, and helping us with our daily lives. Nourishing us, clothing us, helping us to walk, and even missing us when we are not there. The Incarnation allows us to look at what we understand, and even don’t understand, of the plan God has for our lives and say to Him, “I . . . want . . . that. . . too . . . Father.” When we are most alone and He speaks so softly to us, we can say with Michael, “I feel… it… here… here in my heart.” And even when things go remarkably wrong he helps us to smile and declare, “You are… a … funny… Father!” The Incarnation is a mystery, but it is God becoming man so that he might wrap his arms around you and hold you to Himself.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” The Incarnation is God marching into this world and loving his creation… loving us.
Let us pray – This is an Advent prayer from Fr. Henri Nouwen: Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas. We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.