The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
On the face of it, it seems obvious that Christmas is about the babe in the manger. It seems so obvious, in fact, that many preachers see the overwhelming focus in the popular imagination upon the Christ Child, the baby, and then feel that they must tell you just why Christmas is not about the baby. I have, from time to time, been that preacher, and perhaps tomorrow morning I will be that preacher again when the Gospel is taken from John, when we hear that the Word that was Incarnate and dwelt among us full of grace and truth had been with God, been God, from the beginning. Tonight, however, is definitely about the baby, for it is he who was born for us in Bethlehem this night, tiny and vulnerable, and it is that baby, that vulnerable child, who will bring us reconciliation with God and with each other.
Indeed, those of you who have been here before knew that before we did anything else, I would take the figure of the baby in my arms, that we would make our procession to the crèche, and we would lay him in the manger. And for every liturgy from now through Epiphany that crèche, off to the side in the Chantry Chapel, will be a focus for our devotion. We make it clear that this celebration of the Incarnation of Our Lord is about the child born in the manger in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And that is an unexpected and, indeed, subversive and thing for us to do.
That which may seem inevitable to us today, may seem like the only way that God could have chosen to come among us, was far from the obvious choice to those who encountered the Word made flesh in the flesh. While many people in the late Antique world lived in expectation that God (or the gods, depending on you community) could and would intercede in the affairs of the world, no one imagined it would happen in this way.
Specifically, in those days when the Romans ruled Judea, there were many who awaited the coming of the Messiah. Many Jews believed that God would send the anointed one to usher in a new age, and the image people had of this messenger of the Lord, this Son of Man, this messiah, was formed by their knowledge of scripture. The prophets spoke of this messiah and spoke of him in many ways. In Malachai, he was described as “like a refiners fire and like fullers soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord” (3:1-5). Jeremiah foretold that, “the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). The messiah for whom people hoped would come as a grown man with great skills like that of a craftsman and great power, like that of a general or king.
Isaiah did speak of a young woman conceiving and bearing a son to be called Emmanuel, God with us (7:14). This son, however, will act in God’s name when he is mature and will bring great trial and tribulation upon the people for “in that day everyplace where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekles of silver, will become briers and thorns” (23:23). Even in tonight’s reading we hear Isaiah’s conviction that “to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.” The child about whom Isaiah speaks, whom the people were expecting was someone who would grow into a world leader, a king, a judge, someone who would act within the power structures of the world to enact God’s plan for judgement, for the vindication of Israel.
But is this the messiah that we got? Is this the child we received? On the one hand yes, Jesus is truly that “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” but certainly not in the sense that was expected. The Messiah did not come to the powerful, he was not born to the sound of great fanfare. No, our Messiah, our Christ, our Anointed one, fulfilled the prophesies, and at the same time turned them on their heads.
Jesus, Luke tells us, was born amid the chaos of a city full of people returning home to fulfill the requirements of the Roman census. He was born in the confusion of a world on the move, in the most humble of surroundings. His birth was announced to shepherds, successors in David’s first vocation and not his kingly one. He was welcomed into our world, into our flesh, became that very God-with-us in the form of a little baby, born to young Mary his mother and a perplexed Joseph. His first admirers were the animals of the stable and the humble shepherds who had believed what the angels had told them. It was far from obvious that God would send the only begotten son into the world to come among us in this way and herald the new age of peace and love in which all of the people of the world might now be counted among God’s children. It was far from obvious that the baby himself and not just the man into whom he would grow, would have significance in God’s plan for the reconciliation of all creation with himself. It was not at all obvious that the whole world would gather around the manger, around the child and look down into the face of God.
For in the manger we see not the old man with the beard. We see not the Jesus of so many works of art and popular imaginings, neither the golden bearded hippie-type nor the fair haired shepherd boy. What we see is a little baby, the most vulnerable of all human creatures. We see someone who can not regulate his temperature, can not control his desire of food or comfort, who can not yet articulate with words his needs or feelings. We see someone whose need for love and whose ability to give love are both completely transparent. We see the least of all human creatures, the smallest of all human creatures, bearing and giving the love of God. We see in him all the potential for hope, for reconciliation, for the best of lives. We see in the child, in the newborn babe, our God, come among us, full of light and truth, full of hope and love.
The values of first-century society were not that different from the values of our society. It was as counter cultural then as it remains today to for God to have come as a child, come in so vulnerable a form. It was as counter cultural then as it is today for us to assert that the child is the one with the real power, assert that the power wielded by politicians and money, by armies, by guile and deciet is nothing in the face of the power of the babe to give and receive love, to show us ourselves at our very best.
I pray this night that we never forget how surprising it must have been to encounter Emmanuel as the baby. I pray that we always keep in our hearts and minds the real power that God showed by acting to send the Child into the manger rather than the one with the sword. I pray that we always keep in our hearts and minds the knowledge that God acts in surprising ways, in ways that we can not imagine, to bring us close to him so that we may bask in the glow of his love and know that he cares for each and every one of us as Mary cared for Jesus on that first Christmas.
May God bless us and keep us safe this Christmas Night. Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Margaret, Queen of Scotland, 16 November 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume