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Christmas Eve Meditation
December 24, 2018
I have not heard much lately about the “war on Christmas,” but it was a big topic a few years ago. Many Americans, it seems, were unhappy that Christmas carols are no longer sung in public schools, that crèches are no longer permitted in civic spaces, and that the words “Happy Holidays” have replaced “Merry Christmas” in workplaces and retail stores. I confess I never had much sympathy for these complaints. We Christians have extraordinary privileges in America already, including the freedom to gather here tonight in a public space. Our knowledge of the benefits of Christ should be enough to make us happy, even if we can’t put a crèche in front of the courthouse.
In fact, a supposed “war on Christmas” could be a good thing, if it directed our attention away from some of the purely cultural and commercial trappings of Christmas to focus on its real meaning. When Christmas became a cultural holiday, it lost something of its grandeur and mystery, and now we have to witness such things as nativity scenes featuring teddy bears and Disney characters. Just to be clear, I am not making the usual tired old Christmas Eve clergy complaint about the commercialism of Christmas – after all, what is wrong with giving gifts to people we care about? I’m talking about the reduction of the meaning of Christmas to simply a sweet story about a baby. Christmas is not a birthday party for Jesus: it is the Feast of the Incarnation, the church’s contemplation, with awe and wonder, of the Incarnation of the Word, God taking on a human life, and a human life revealing God.
In the words of John the Evangelist, which we heard at the beginning of this service, “the Word became flesh” and lived among us. What is “flesh” in this context? “Flesh” refers to blood and bone and muscle, a beating heart, pulsing arteries, neurons firing across synapses. It also refers to thoughts, emotions, experiences and memories, and the sense we make of them. “Flesh” refers to everything a human being is, body, mind and soul. Jesus Christ did not come among us as an observer of the species called homo sapiens, but as one of us.
Our consideration of this event, the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ, inevitably leads to the question, “Who is God?” The Incarnation tells us that God, among other things, is one who is able, without ceasing to be God, to express the divine self through a human life.
Equally important, the Incarnation also causes us to ask, “Who are we?” What is a human being? This question was asked long before Christ walked the earth, by the poet of Psalm Eight: “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
The Bible tells us, in the very first chapter of Genesis, that we are “made in the image of God.” Psalm Eight goes on to tell us that God has given us a place in the order of creation “a little lower than the angels.” All this points to a rather exalted status and destiny for us.
It is often difficult to believe these affirmations. In Hamlet, for example, we hear the Prince of Denmark exclaim,
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of the animals…and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither.”
Hamlet looks at human beings and sees something amiss. This points to another aspect of humanity the church has tried to describe: the way we squander our God-given inheritance, throwing away our gifts of reason, intelligence, and creativity to pursue goals that are worthless and can bring us no lasting joy; or the way we fritter away our lives in aimless worry or laziness or despair. Human history is full of glorious achievement, to be sure, but it’s also full of destruction, a sad chronicle of wars, conquests, slavery, betrayals, chicanery, and everyday cruelty or indifference to suffering.
And yet – the image of the divine has been imprinted on us. It is a paradox: on the one hand, we truly are “dust” – and that is not just a biblical or Shakespearean way of talking: according to the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe, we are made up of cosmic dust, ashes of ancient stars whose light went out eons ago. We are composed of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, with small amounts of other elements. On the other hand, we bear the stamp of the divine. Though we are dust, an essential grandeur has been bestowed on us.
The Western Christian tradition, both Protestant and Catholic, has tended to focus on the sinfulness of human beings, our relentless deviation from God’s intentions for us. In the Eastern Christian tradition, though, theology focuses more on our creation in the image of God; the sense of the human self as having a glory intrinsic to it is much more pronounced in the Eastern tradition. But even in our own Protestant tradition, we have voices that affirm this God-given dignity. John Calvin, for example, had a very high view of the human soul. He saw evidence for its splendor in our curiosity, inventiveness, and imagination, our works of science, art, and literature. In Calvin’s view, “the splendor that God shines on the universe, that splendor that is the reality of God, shines in us. We are not just broken [and sinful], we are also glorious.”[i] Humankind itself is a revelation of the divine presence.
Can we believe this about ourselves? As Marilynne Robinson has noted, Richard Dawkins and others working on the fringes of the scientific world encourage us to see ourselves purely as the product of evolutionary biology and psychology, simply a more intelligent animal. Certainly it is important for us to understand our biological origins and our place among the animals, but there is no place in this conceptual framework for what we have become accustomed to calling the soul.
The truth is, it is hard to talk about our humanity without talking about the soul, that unlocatable “inward being” that is intrinsic to who we are as individuals. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Holy Night,” which tells us that when Christ appeared “the soul felt its worth.” The Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ is God showing us the worth of our souls, showing us that we have worth, that indeed God’s intention for us in the work of creation is for us to reflect something of God’s own splendor. Every person on earth has been created with the divine imprint. It’s interesting that we never read Luke’s genealogy of Jesus on Christmas Eve, we jump straight to the birth story, but if you take the time to read it (it’s Luke 3: 23-38), you’ll see that Luke traces Jesus’s ancestry all the way back to Adam: he is “son of Adam, son of God.” He is our Lord and he is also our brother. He shares in our humanity as he shares in God’s divinity. That means his imprint, too, is on every human being.
If Christians, who are so numerous in the U.S., truly recognized this, would we make the kind of invidious distinctions we are always making about other people? Would we be so suspicious of immigrants? Would we distinguish between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor? Would we be so quick to endorse policies of “no room at the inn” for the most needy people? If there was ever a “war on Christmas,” it is the war on graciousness and generosity, a certain openheartedness and openhandedness, as a way of being in the world: a way we dare to call “Christian.” To be Christian is to be able to see the face of Jesus Christ in each person.
These thoughts take us far beyond the stable and the manger. Christmas is about the soul feeling its worth, and the worth of every other human soul. One of the ancient church fathers -- from that same Eastern Christian tradition I mentioned earlier – said that Christ “became what we are so that we could become what he is.”[ii] That is the way God has chosen to teach us the value of our souls.
Tonight is the night the Church commemorates the mystery of how God has chosen to come into our world. It is a holy and gracious night, and however you came to be here tonight – whether as a believer, or a person of another faith, or a person of no faith -- we are privileged to be together as we speak once again of this ancient mystery that remains fresh and astonishing. May this mystery illumine and animate your lives this Christmas, and may the peace of Christ be with you.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2018
[i] Serene Jones, in a lecture on Calvin.
[ii] Gregory of Nazianzus