Mr. Nicholas Richardson
Director of Communications, Editor, Episcopal New Yorker
Mr. Andrew Gary
Assistant to the Chief of Finance and Operations, Communications & Editorial Assistant
Bishop Dietsche’s Sermon for Christmas Day 2020
The Right Reverend Andrew ML Dietsche
Bishop of New York
Last Monday was the Feast of Saint Thomas, and it was the shortest day and longest night of the year, and it was also the occasion of the Great Conjunction. The seeming merger of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The conjunction happens when they come very, very close to lining up in our sight, but the Great Conjunction happens when they get so close that they can appear to become one star. The conjunction is a regular event, but the Great Conjunction is special. These planets have not come this close since 1623. Which is why this conjunction is called Great. So on Monday, about an hour after sunset, the opportune time, I walked over to Riverside Park to get away from the tall buildings and look for it. The Great Conjunction was not easy to find. It’s not big. It’s the size of a star, and low in the sky, so it slipped in and out among the tree branches. As I walked I saw others out on the same mission. A woman said I think it is near the moon. I said I think it is across the river. A man asked me if I saw it, if I could find it. A young girl laughingly asked if I could clear away the clouds.
I walked along further into the woods with my binoculars hanging from my neck, following the trembling needle of my compass, and came upon a young man and woman. Can you find it? Have you seen it? I asked. Yes, he said, it is right over there through the branches. Do you see the two tall trees and the short tree in between? Follow the short tree up with your eyes, and you will find Jupiter sitting on the top branch. And it was, and I could see it. And it was just as we were told it would be. To the naked eye it was as a single star, small and bright, but through the binoculars the two planets resolved themselves and you could see the larger, brighter Jupiter and the tiny farther away Saturn sitting over Jupiter’s shoulder and the ebony gap of outer space between them. And it was exquisitely beautiful. There were a few handfuls of people out looking for it, and we checked in with each other. Have you seen it? Have you found it? No one had to say Great Conjunction; it was simply “it.” We didn’t have to explain ourselves, we didn’t have to say why we were there. Even in the dark, one glance of our eye and we recognized our own tribe. Our geekiness radiated off of us like some singularly drab and unsexy aura. So I stood out in the dark with these strangers and I saw the Great Conjunction until it got tangled up in the tree branches and I stopped being able to find it, and I’ll never see that again in this lifetime.
Earlier this fall Margaret and I tried to get up when we could to our cabin in the Catskills, and each night that we were there I went out to spend a little time with Mars. Really big, and red as a brick, hanging in the sky just over our shed roof. Mars was moving night by night toward its October 13th opposition, and its close approach to the planet earth. And this was an especially bright year for it.
Last year I took my telescope outside to watch the transit of Mercury, when the small black dot of the planet passed in front of the giant yellowness of the sun. I love this stuff. Three years ago Margaret and I traveled to Casper, Wyoming to witness the total eclipse of the sun. It became a story of cancelled plane flights, lost hotel reservations, and a night spent sleeping in our fantastically expensive eclipse-special-price-gouged rental car, but whatever the trip cost and whatever inconveniences we suffered, it was so worth it for the two and a half minutes of totality we got to see. I love this stuff. I love that you have to go to the exact right place at the exact right time, and the thing that you go to see doesn’t last very long, and then it’s gone. I think that’s why it’s all such a gift, the things you can’t hold on to. They comes as pure grace.
I believe the evangelist John was someone who watched the stars or followed the planets or bent his neck to study the night sky. And I am convinced these things say something about God which John wants to associate with Jesus. And I think I know what that is.
These things all speak to me of purpose and precision and geometry. And of the magic of arithmetic that lets some brainy type sit at his desk and pencil out the numbers which will mark with pinpoint accuracy the moment a billion miles away or a thousand years from now or a thousand years ago when some bright dot in the sky will or did align with some other bright dot in the sky or shined onto that circle of massive rocks set in the ground at Stonehenge or onto an altar or a mountain peak or a pyramid or a red spiral scratched on a granite paleolithic stoneface and let us know for a second that we are connected to all things in every place and every time and so is God, and for a second we get to remember where we are and whose we are. These things speak to me of the dependability and predictability of the universe and of the God who made it, and the miracle and wonder that everything in the universe has been set on its course and will follow that course until it arrives where it is supposed to be and gets there right on time.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine asked this singular question: what it is that I love when I love my God? “What is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, ‘I am not He.’” “And I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, “We are not thy God.” “I asked the moving air … I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars. ‘Nor are we the God whom thou seekest.’” Then tell me something of him. “And they cried out with a loud voice, ‘“He made us.’ And their form of beauty was their answer.”
If you want to know something of the mind of God, look at the things that God has made, and they really will tell you what you need to know. We can be certain that John was a student of the Book of Genesis. We know because of the things he said. We know that he had a profound sense of a Word by which light was divided from darkness, and a Word which flung the sun, moon and stars into the heavens, and poured water into the crevices of the earth, and covered everything with trees and plants and fruit, and loosed fish and birds and animals of every kind into this wonder, and finally human beings too. Day by day, in order and without confusion, six days which mirror the geologic and biologic processes stretched over aeons. We know that John had to be a student of these things, an inquirer like Augustine, a geek who stood in the dark and the cold with squinted eyes to ferret out the smallest things of the greatest beauty. We know that he had to be a student of these things, or how else could he have had the audacity to open his story of Jesus with the first Genesis word “In the Beginning?” How else would he have dared to overlay the story of Jesus with the story and science of first things, of Creator and creation and world and universe? Two thousand years later, it is still breathtaking – we still marvel – to read it.
When Matthew and Luke wrote the story of Jesus they started with the names of his parents, and his home town, and Caesar in Rome, and angels and shepherds and kings and oxen and donkeys, and the adventure story of a dangerous journey. They are wonderful storytellers. We love their stories. But when John went to tell the story of Jesus he looked in a different direction and discovered in the story of Jesus the story of everything.
Some years ago, the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a memoir of the time when his brother Israel Joshua Singer, also a writer, told him about the cosmological theory of the Big Bang. How everything that is began as one singular thing, infinitely small, and then in a great burst exploded and spangled the void with fiery bits that over time cooled or didn’t cool and gathered together or not and became the universe as we see it and know it, and everything in it, including this fragile earth our island home. And Isaac Singer wrote that it was interesting, but that as soon as he learned it he began trying to forget it. I don’t think that was because he didn’t believe his brother or that he doubted the science, but he said that the Big Bang just isn’t a story he can live by. A story he can root his life in. The story of God creating the world as an act of love, and loving all that is within it, and loving the act of creation itself is a story to which one can give one’s life. But not to the story of a universe which is running away from itself forever.
John’s story of Jesus is a story of that kind of love, the love of a God from whom all blessings flow, the story of a love to which we can give our lives. It’s that beautiful. It’s that all-encompassing. If you want to know something of the Word look at the things that Word has made. If you want to know something of Jesus tell his story again. Reach out with the hand of the Spirit within you and touch that beauty once more. John invites us to see the cosmos reflected in one another’s shining eyes, and to feel our own hearts lifted into the heavens. To look upon Jesus and see the life of the world welling up within him. And see the Word itself by which all things came to be speaking to us of love and desire and of hearts yearning to do and be good. Like Matthew and Luke, John invites us to look upon Jesus and see rabbi and teacher and master, but then he says look deeper and see God. Or in his own telling, the very Word of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only child, full of grace and truth.
And on Christmas, I read John’s amazing words and hear permission to see that same grace and truth in one another. To feel the light of a distant star pass through you and me, to reel with the turning world, to feel the connections between us and every living thing, and especially the connections between our own and every other human heart. In the beginning was the Word, and that Word is never silent and makes everything a new creation, so that we who have been claimed by Christ may find in the Christmas narratives, the Christmas promises, the Christmas gifts, a story which sanctifies and makes holy and beautiful the stories of our own lives. So that when we say to one another tell me of yourself, we might respond in truth and without hubris, In the Beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, or even In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And it might be that we have never more needed to know our Jesus and our own selves to be so beautiful. The year now drawing to a close has been a rough ride. A virulent everywhere global pandemic, which has taken the lives of a third of a million Americans and it’s not finished with us yet. More millions thrown into unemployment and hunger and poverty, and people sleeping in their cars. Greater inequality among the classes, and too much indifference toward the suffering of others. The most rancorous partisan political shriekfest we have seen in our lifetimes, and every threat which it is possible to make to American democracy. The heightened urgency of the struggle for racial justice, but also the rise of proto-fascism, and armed thugs in the streets of our cities. And finally in these last days an active shooter dying and bleeding out on the threshold of this great cathedral. We’ve lost too much. Too many are overwhelmed by their fear. Or wearing faces numbed by exhaustion or distorted by anger.
But for every burden which 2020 has laid upon us, and notwithstanding everything which has been taken away, I will forever give thanks to God for the miracles and wonders we saw around us this year, or even in which we had a part. We saw nurses who have held the hands of dying men and women again and again and again when those people’s families could not come, and then wept later when they talked about it. We have seen police and protesters embrace on the street while chaos and recrimination raged about them. We have seen members of our parishes risk their own safety during pandemic surge to go to their churches and prepare food to give out at the door to families in trouble. We have seen kindness and generosity and forgiveness and goodness when it was hard to be kind and generous and forgiving and good. And loving. And it has taken our breath away. From where comes this love? How can we understand it? Understand this: it is just the grace and truth of the living Word of God shining from the lives of a Christmas people.
I know all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. God is dependable – purposeful and precise. John said so. And like everything else great and small, we too have been set on our course, and by grace we will arrive where we are supposed to be, and like Jupiter and Saturn, and like Jesus of Nazareth on Christmas morning, arrive right on time. We’re fine. And in a beautiful season in a hard year, I wish you, with all my heart, a Merry Christmas! Amen.