Greetings! We’re preparing to celebrate Christmas – a feast which even those who are not particularly religious love to celebrate.
The Christmas story is so familiar, its characters so sympathetic and appealing, its message so clear and universal, that people do embrace it and secularize it without really thinking about it. Children narrate the story for us, and we get caught up in how adorable they are as sheep and shepherds, magi, and angels, and stars, that we forget that the story continues.
When Mary discovered she would become the mother of the Savior, she sang a song of joy and gratitude – a song which declares God’s determination to right the wrongs of the past, to bring down the powerful and haughty, to raise up the poor and lowly, to turn the tables on injustice. The Magnificat reveals Mary’s willingness to believe that the promises of the prophets would come to pass, and she consented to play her own part in making that happen.
Because the world into which Jesus was born was a mess! The Jews were living under occupation. Their own leaders were collaborating with the enemy. Tax collectors were gouging them. The gap between rich and poor was widening. Life was hard, and their religious leaders were providing them a confusing variety of perspectives on what constituted faithful life.
The Savior was expected by most of the people to put an end to all of that – they had not heard Mary’s song, but they knew the prophets, whose consistent message was that what God required of them was to love justice and do mercy. They expected the Romans to be overthrown, freedom to be restored, and some kind of clarity about what constituted true faithfulness to be provided.
They were ready to affirm that God would choose a person and act through him. It had happened in the past, with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David, Solomon, the prophets. They were more than ready to have God act on their behalf again.
And God did act – but not as they had imagined.
Instead, God was doing something entirely new. In the birth of Jesus, God did not force faithfulness on the world, God entered into the world, making it possible for us to enter into the life God has always intended for us – a life characterized by the justice, mercy, peace, and joy of Mary’s song.
What we celebrate at Christmas– is God getting not only alongside us, but within us, living among us as one of us, joining heaven to earth and making the impossible a reality.
In the Incarnation the eternal becomes finite, and the finite eternal. The almighty becomes weak, and the weak become powerful. The unknowable becomes known, the Word becomes flesh.
And what difference does it make?
The world is still a mess! Greed still has the gap between rich and poor growing wider. Children still die of preventable diseases. People still starve because we haven’t found the will to distribute the food Earth can produce to all it’s peoples. And we know all too well that in the streets of large cities, and in quiet towns, innocent people are killed because disturbed or angry people have access to weapons that make massacre possible.
And yet, our Christmas message is resolute. It is a brazen, and perhaps even preposterous claim.….that in Bethlehem’s stable, surrounded by mute animals, God has taken the risk of all risks – and is depending upon us.
Only when we allow this reality to seep into our hearts will it begin the transformation in us that will enable us to transform the world.
At Christmas we proclaim the astonishing truth that God loves us enough to become vulnerable to us – to share with us the despair of poverty, homelessness, and chronic pain. God shares with us in our awareness of our failures, our sin, our willingness to be violent toward each other. God enters with us into the devastation of burying our innocent children – not to remain with us in those dark places, but to raise us out of them.
God has entered the world in order to set a new freedom in motion, and to those who believe, the new freedom has already begun to take hold. We have come to know, somewhere deep inside ourselves, that there is nothing that can come to us in this life – no disaster, no cruel or violent thing we can do to each other, that is beyond the power of God’s love and grace to heal. We believe that the same Spirit which filled Mary with the power to give birth to the Savior, fills every person who binds him or herself to Christ, and that in Christ, every death is followed by resurrection.
The late Presiding Bishop, John Hines, was fond of telling the story about a traveler who passed through the Louvre without being particularly impressed. As he stalked out the door he said quite loudly, “There is nothing all that great to see in here.” A museum guard standing by the door heard his remark and took up the challenge. In a quiet and respectful manner he said, “Sir, the paintings in here are not on trial. It is the spectators who are.”
Jesus and his holy family are not on trial as we celebrate the Incarnation. It is we who risk rendering the message of the Incarnation unbelievable. We have the ability to open our hearts and bind ourselves to the love God offers us in every moment – the truth of the Incarnation is to be lived in and through us. And if we refuse to do that, the world is justified in rejecting the claims of our faith.
The text of one of my favorite Christmas carols reads this way –
“Oh holy child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell,
Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel….”
May it be so, and may all the blessings of this holy season rest on you and all you love.
- The 79th General Convention
- Bishop Cate’s Easter Message