“The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”+
Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course, every birth is normally a cause for celebration, and every baby a beautiful gift of life. The feelings naturally engendered in us at the sight of any newborn are part of the joy of Christmas as well. And there is nothing wrong with this. Our faith does not require us to oppose God's grace to that which is good and natural. As theology teaches us, grace elevates rather than destroys nature.
But the Faith does challenge any self-satisfied, sentimental approach to Christmas. How does it challenge and elevate the natural reaction to Christmas and its story today? There are two errors or distortions in particular which I will address. The first is turning of a sacred feast into an excuse for excess. The second is the Gospel of mere “sweetness and light”.
Regarding the first distortion, a key verse of Scripture is this: “[Y]e know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Of course, the poverty spoken of here refers firstly to the smallness, limits and vulnerability of the human state compared to divinity. But it also refers to the down-to-earth fact that Jesus was not born into a rich family. His parents were even refugees for a time. We are fairly well aware of the poverty of the immediate circumstances of his birth. How did he make us rich by his earthly poverty? It is obvious from Jesus' preaching and the teaching of the Apostles in the NT that this does not refer to being materially or financially wealthy. It is spiritual wealth spoken of, the treasure that is eternal because it belongs to the blessing of eternal life. (Matthew 6:19ff, 2 Corinthians 6:10, James 1:9-11.)
The point for us here is that we are meant to imitate Christ in the right kind of generosity to others. God is on the side of the poor, and so must we be. That means that Christmas should not be a time where Christians spend inordinate amounts of money on expensive (and often unutilised) gifts for those already well-provided for, or get themselves into debt, or further encourage unquestioning consumption. Our Christmas generosity need not ignore our friends and family, but it must extend outwards to the poor and the outcasts. In this way we will be doing the work of God and the work of the Church: “The LORD doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts of Israel. He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds” (Psalm 147:2-3). “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). [Further to this principle, allow me to quote some excerpts from a recent news article on Christians opposing the commercialisation of Christmas.]
Regarding the second distortion, that there is much sweetness and light as we gaze into the manger is undeniable. But the sweetness is destined to become bittersweet, the light is one that is piercing. As hinted at above, the Holy Family are in a shelter reserved for animals because “there was no room for them in the inn”. So the Blessed Virgin gives birth in the equivalent of a cramped barn, amidst the sounds and smells one would expect there. Within weeks she will be told by Simeon in Jerusalem that her child and herself will be opposed and pierced (Luke 2:34-35). In the not-too-distant future the Magi will arrive with gifts, one of which was used as a burial ointment, myrrh, another of which, frankincense, pertains to priestly activity (Matthew 2:11). And our Lord's priestly offering was of himself. At the same time, the first attempt to take his life will be made by King Herod. This is a child born to die.
This is also the child whom today's Gospel says the world at large did not recognise (“know”) and the child's own people, the Jews, did not receive or accept on the whole. It is the same child who will grow up to say many hard words and warn all of the wrath and judgement of God, while offering an escape from this in following Him. Yes, “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son”. Yes, he wants all to repent of their sins and trust in and receive this Gift. Yes, the Gift that is Jesus is freely offered, and offered to all. But, as the same Gospel-author reminds us: “This is the judgement: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because there deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
It is self-deception to rejoice in the Christmas story and yet treat it as nothing but a “warm-fuzzy”, an easy emotional boost. A mild appreciation of God's “good will toward men” and the charm and tenderness of Mother and Child is a foolish under-reaction. Rather, the right response is one that mingles reverent awe with sweet contemplation. God the Word, Creator of our universe (Hebrews 1:2 from Epistle), has humbled himself to also become a flesh and blood human being, to take on a very vulnerable existence. He has done it for love of us. [Again, remember, for our sakes he forsook riches for poverty.] As an accessory to this great and sufficient Gift of Himself, he also gives us the gift of His Mother as our Mother (John 19:27).
But we must receive, we must unwrap the gift. We do this by repentant faith. We trust in Christ to save us from the sin we reject in repentance, by the power of the Cross, as he died to bear the penalty and absorb and overcome the consequences of our evil. We trust in Christ to give us spiritual freedom, and make us more and more like Him, through his giving us the God the Holy Spirit and reconciling us to God the Father. We trust in Him to give us a share in His Resurrection at the last Day.
Let us pray together. If we can truly say the Amen to this prayer, it is the receiving of the gift. And it is a gift we can receive, in a sense, again and again.
Dear Father, we acknowledge your Son as your Gift to us, and our only ultimate source of Light and Life, and that in ourselves, without Him, we are lost in the darkness caused by sin. We open ourselves up to the light of Jesus, trusting in Him as our Lord, our Master, and as our Saviour, the one who rescues us from sin by the victory of his death and resurrection. Grant that he might dwell in our hearts by this faith and transform us into his likeness, full of grace and truth. We ask this through the same your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
If any have made this prayer of faith their own for the first time, please let me know after the service, so we can talk about how to use the Gift. This one comes with an instruction manual, one might say: the Bible. And it is naturally shared with others, without the individual losing any part or benefit of it, quite the contrary. The Church is in fact part of the Gift. +