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A Place of Animals

As is our custom, St. Paul’s Anglo congregation combined with the St. Paul’s South Sudanese congregation on Christmas Eve at the late service.

I love worshipping with the South Sudanese community.  I have found them to be funny, brilliant, faithful, and some of the best cooks around.   And one of these days, I am going to learn Dinka, because that is a really neat sounding language.

Selfishly, I love being around any community that is unlike me, because it reminds me that the salvation of the world is not solely up to me.  There are countless others in this, too, contributing things that never occur to me.  Thanks be for that.

This year, the Sudanese choir and dance team performed a series of songs about the birth of Christ at the service.  One of which, the leader of the choir announced, was translated “Jesus came in a place of animals.”

I love this phrasing so much that it ended up being the foundation of my Christmas 1 sermon.  Christ came in a place of animals–both literally and metaphorically.

See what you think.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 27, 2015

Christmas 1, Year C

John 1


The beginning of John’s gospel is like music, like poetry.  The words flow together so nicely that it almost doesn’t matter what they actually say.  And like poetry, the language is so evocative that it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, the writer is talking about, and it almost seems a shame to try.  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

This lovely ephemeral poetry that just trips off the tongue.

John does that a lot.  While Matthew, Mark and Luke want to tell you the straight-ahead story about what happened to Jesus and his disciples, and how they lived and what they preached, John on the other hand, is like that emo goth boy from freshman year of college.  He wants to sit around and talk about WHAT IT ALL MEANS.  

This both means that the Fourth Gospel is profound, incredibly confusing, and very dense.

In this particular section of poetry here, in the way of all poetry, the writer is referencing a whole bunch of ideas, all at once. His community would have heard this, and immediately thought about Wisdom, which in Jewish thought, helps God to create the earth, because she (and Wisdom is personified as a She) is so powerful.  

They also would have thought about creation itself, since God creates through speaking–Let it be light, and it was.  So words are inherently creative. And there’s also that whole light/dark thing happening at creation as well.

But John takes all those ideas and moves them one step further.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  

That was the wrench in the works.  That’s the big deal.

None of those ideas being alluded to include the idea of incarnation.  That’s too icky.  That’s too lowly and messy.  Yet, here it is.  

The daring idea that God became one of us, in one of these weird, fleshy, leaky bodies.

That idea would have been something close to revolting to much of the ancient world, and really–it still sounds a bit weird today.  Remember, Plato had already written his philosophical treatise on the lies of the material world.  The dominant Roman culture of the time did not care overmuch for the material world.  True enlightenment, true spirituality was going to be found by working out philosophy in your head, by ignoring the material world.  And it was Plato’s Hellenistic thought that led to Gnostics running around the ancient world, promising a deliverance from the sinful world of the flesh, to the holier realm of spirit.  

Today, we don’t quite have Stoics standing on street corners, quoting Plato anymore.  However, you don’t have to look far to hear someone ignoring the material, because heaven makes it all worth it.  Or ignoring their bodies, because the spirit is what lasts.  

Yes, that’s true.  But the Incarnation means that God, in the person of Jesus, was born in a human body, here in this material world.  So, that makes these human bodies of ours important.  If God liked them so much as to get one for Godself, then they must be pretty great.  

Part of what the Incarnation did that was radical was to insist that these things ::wiggles fingers:: we have are important, are holy.  Not just souls, and not just heaven.  But all this material stuff too.  The earth.  These bodies we inhabit.  These things are precious.  These things must be cared for, and enjoyed for the gifts that they are.

Even though we grow old and we break down, there is still something of value to our physicality.  It is still a blessing to us.  It is how we can interact with the world around us, it is how we recognize each other.  It is how we interact with God, when we come to church, and take the bread and wine, smell the pine, and incense, and see the beautiful building around us.

For as much of a pain all this embodiement can be sometimes, it is still a gift we have been given. The physical creation is blessed by God’s presence in it–shining through it, and making the poetic concrete and real.  

So on this third day of Christmas, rejoice, at the poetry made flesh!  Rejoice in the poetry all around us, and the concrete, messy ways we experience the transcendent.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

One response »

  1. You appreciate languages. Many Spanish translations go with “In the beginning was the Verb….”. Verb instead of Word gives the sense of action.


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