The Rev'd Br. Chad-Joseph Sundin
Merry Christmas. I hope your experience of this blessed day has thus far been filled with joy in the presence of your beloved family and friends, whether that presence is experienced in close proximity or from afar. When beloved members of my family were living far away in China several years ago, they would often come home for Christmas, bringing artifacts from their adventurous and exotic life in the East. While in China, they encountered a wide array of cultural phenomena that result from the opening of China to the West. China seemed to exist in a state of perpetual clashing and mixing and integrating of Western ideas and ways of being, sometimes with hilarious results. My family would snap pictures of signs they encountered of less than successful English translations, and we would roll with laughter as we scrolled through the photos. Here are some signs like the ones they saw.
Translation is difficult work. It’s so much more than finding precise matches between sets of words in different languages. It requires a certain relational awareness, a measure of empathy, if it is to be successful. A good translator must learn to hear with two sets of ears. They must be, in themselves, a kind of bridge not only between languages, but between the cultures in which languages function.
I think this feast we celebrate today, The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, Christmas Day, could be called the Feast of the Great Translation. Today the Infinite is translated for the finite, the Invisible for the visible, the Transcendent for the immanent. Listen to these words from our readings this morning.
From the letter to the Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son . . . He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.
How many of us have held our newborn children in our arms and felt utterly unable to put into words the reality of the relational experience? Any attempt to describe that being-with, when we drink deeply of presence, would result in an epic fail. Words cannot do justice to the experience.
Is this the reason that the Divine Word is translated to us by way of a wordless infant? Did God find the one translation for the Logos that could not be lost in the journey across the vast divide between Transcendence and the lives we live here on Earth? A nursing baby Jesus in the arms of his exhausted mother, Mary—this is “the imprint of God’s very being;” this is the Great Translation.
I wonder if this is why today’s feast, this Christ-Mass, is called by the name of the Sacrament whereby the Church perceives the Real Presence of Jesus in its midst, not by means of words and concepts, but through the non-verbal elements of bread and wine. Christmas is not something to be understood with language, even if that language is sung in our favorite carols, it’s a reality to be experienced through the Real Presence of Christ among us.
We gather together this morning to experience the Great Translation that takes place here at this altar so that we might perceive and embody the silent glory of the Divine Word who has come to us in the wordless elements of our humanity. Let us welcome him with our own presence wherever he may be found throughout this thoroughly sacramental world we inhabit. And let us set aside our ideas, our failing attempts to explain what any of this means in terms other than the ineffable relationships we cherish. These are the terms, and no others, in which the Infinite, the Invisible, the Transcendent can be successfully translated for us.