Here's the knitting homily. Gary, my dyed-in-the-wool atheist -- who nonetheless always appreciates a good metaphor -- likes this a lot, so I hope I won't embarrass myself in front of our bishop-elect!
This painting of the knitting Madonna is the one I refer to in the fifth paragraph of the homily.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and the happiest of New Years!
Good morning, and Merry Christmas!
Whenever we have one of our contemporary services, I’m struck by a phrase from the Shema: “the infinite and the intimate are one.” No season in the Christian calendar emphasizes that lesson more than Christmas. This morning, we’ve gathered to celebrate a birth, the arrival of God among us as a vulnerable human infant. God is infinite, but few things are as intimate as a newborn baby, nestled with his exhausted, exultant mother in a stable.
Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation, and incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” At Christmas, God’s love takes human form among us. We, too, are incarnations of God’s love, called to make our own love visible in the world. Creativity is one of the ways we do that. Every painting, symphony, blueprint and poem incarnates -- gives a body to -- what we think and feel. Created in the image of a creator, we too create. Christ is the Word made flesh, but we too, more modestly, give flesh to our ideas.
It’s fashionable to decry the commercialism of Christmas, but I suspect that all that gift-giving is really a kind of incarnation. Every gift under the tree is an embodiment of love. The gifts that mean the most, though, are often homemade: the plate of cookies baked from scratch, the quilt sewed by a great-aunt, the crooked angel paperweight made by a child. These intimate gifts reflect the infinite depth of our feelings for one another.
Many of you know that several months ago, I taught myself to knit. So far, I’ve produced a series of prayer shawls and a balaclava, a ski mask, for my husband. My projects display more devotion than skill, but the recipients of my gifts don’t seem to mind my mistakes: instead, they’re touched by the time I’ve put in. And during my many hours of knitting this autumn, I’ve thought about Mary. I kept picturing her, during her pregnancy, knitting baby blankets and booties for Jesus, even though my research into the history of knitting tells me that the craft didn’t take its current form until the Middle Ages.
The idea of Mary knitting appealed to someone back then, too: the earliest image of knitting we have, probably from around 1400, is this painting of the Madonna knitting, on four double-pointed needles, Christ’s seamless garment, the one for which the soldiers cast lots after the crucifixion. At Christmas, the image reminds us -- somberly -- that birth foreshadows death, but it is also a reminder of continuity, because knitters still use this technique. I’m using it to make another balaclava, this one for myself.
Knitting is a very intimate activity, but if the infinite and the intimate are truly one, we shouldn’t be surprised to see God described as a knitter. The Bible contains several such images. At least two of them deal directly with birth. “You have clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews,” says Job, and Psalm 139 proclaims, “you formed my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” While the word “knit,” in these contexts, probably means something more like “weave,” author and knitting guru Susan Gordon Lydon is definitely talking about the contemporary form of the craft in her own theological musings. In her book Knitting Heaven and Earth, she writes:
I knit and I wonder. Is God a knitter, a craftsperson, a seamstress? Did (s)he create the vast oceans with a sweep of the hand or patiently construct them one drop at a time? The most miraculous things in the world are those we take totally for granted: water and skin. Who could dream of constructing a seamless, elastic, self-repairing fabric of any fiber available on earth? Who could synthesize the proper combination of hydrogen and oxygen to produce a substance that boils and freezes, moves violently of its own accord, cuts through rock and gently soaks tiny plants, or bursts dams and levels whole villages and towns. I contemplate the miracles of water and skin as yarn passes through my fingers, on its way to creating a garment of softness and warmth (203-204).Mary, too, must have contemplated the miracles of water and skin, as she lay exhausted and exultant in the stable, running her fingers over the delicate skin of the baby who had so recently emerged from the waters of her womb.
Before and after their birth, children grow cell by cell, a drop at a time. Christmas reminds us that mighty things grow from tiny ones: kingdoms from mustard seeds, floods from raindrops, saviors from embryos. Over the course of the coming year, we will follow Jesus step by step through his ministry, watching him grow from a squalling infant into a healer and prophet, into the Messiah. And we will be called to grow with him. We will watch Jesus acquire followers: with them, we will doubt, wonder, question, witness miracles and betrayal and death, and stand in awe and terror at the ultimate miracle of the resurrection. After the ascension, we will watch Jesus’ followers become the church.
The church, too, grows from small beginnings. The Collect for All Saint’s Day begins, “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.” Christ the infinite is composed of the intimate, the bodies and deeds of his elect. That means us. We are Christ’s hands and feet and heart now in the world. God the knitter joins us together, one stitch at a time.
Christmas is fundamentally about connection, about earth joined to heaven in the person of Jesus. Faith is fundamentally about connection, about how we express our love for God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Few activities embody -- incarnate -- connection as literally and vividly as knitting, which forms seamless fabric from interlocking loops of yarn.
Knitting holds a surprising number of lessons for the church. First, it teaches us that there is no one right way to proceed. Nearly any pattern can be made a number of ways, using a variety of techniques. I taught myself to knit using chopsticks as needles and ribbon as yarn. After a month or so, I discovered that I’d been making half my stitches backwards, knitting onto the back of the stitch instead of the front. My projects had come out fine anyway.
Knitting also teaches us patience and perspective. Projects grow a stitch at a time; the larger pattern becomes visible only after many hours of work. Trusting that the pattern will emerge requires faith in the pattern’s author, and persistence in making each successive stitch even when we can’t yet see how it will fit in.
And, finally, knitting has taught me what kind of mistakes matter the most. This balaclava contains an embarrassing number of twisted stitches and odd yarnovers. It’s a beginner’s project. It’s going to hold together, though, because all of the connections are there, even if they aren’t all lovely. The truly terrible mistake in knitting is the dropped stitch, the stitch completely disconnected from its neighbors. A dropped stitch can unravel an entire project, no matter how splendid the work around it may appear. In knitting, every stitch counts.
And so it is in the church. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” not simply the lovely ones. The God who came among us as a humble infant in a stable dwells among us still, in “the least of these.” This Christmas, let us strive to make Christ’s love visible to all our neighbors, to knit everyone around us into the warm, seamless garment of the Kingdom of God.