The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
December 25, 2020
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
2 Isaiah 52:7-10
Last night I talked about the narrative genius of the Gospels, of the story of the intervention into time and space of God in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. I discussed the view that much of the Christian story’s power lies in its historical specificity—that this happened at a particular moment in a real place—and the inclusion in the narrative of people from all walks of life, especially those seen as of low degree. These accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ depict something that the reading public of the Roman Empire would never have seen depicted before in the history of literature: “ the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the every day occurrences of contemporary life.”(1) The Gospels bring Jesus to life for us in particularly vivid ways that allow all of us, down to the present day, to see ourselves within the story and understand that as God acted in this extraordinary manner in the past, God can do so again.
Mark and Luke do this from the beginning, even though they present very different views of Jesus’ origins. Mark’s narrative, which we believe to be the earliest of the four, begins by introducing a fully grown John the Baptist with a quotation from Hebrew Scripture, but from the outset localises the events in a particular time and place: “ And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” An adult Jesus comes to John, is baptised, and “immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased.’” Jesus’ relationship to God is proclaimed from the heavens in an extraordinary event, on the shores of the River Jordan, in Roman Judea, before all the regular people of Jerusalem.
These elements show themselves particularly vibrantly in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. We begin with the dedication to Theophilus, a man of no particular account other than that he is part of the Jesus movement, explaining the author’s intention of writing history: “ an orderly account,” “ a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us;” and a narrative that opens with exact detail as to time and place, letting us know that we are in Judea “in the days of Herod the king.” We learn of God’s intervention in the lives of a priest and his wife, and even more remarkably for her unremarkability, that of “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David,” And yet in these events are described the coming of the one who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of this father David ... and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The event is announced, with the greatest seriousness and import to shepherds, who are the first to worship this new king. Fitting no known genre of ancient literature, this story draws us in, engages us with its realism, its immediacy, its depiction of the most extraordinary of events unfolding in the most unremarkable of places to the lowliest of people.
John’s Gospel, from which we have this morning’s Christmas Gospel, at first seems a wholly different creature. We must remember, however, that the narrative is full of the elements we have been discussing, including the extraordinary detail of locating Jesus’ passion on a particular date in the Jewish calendar during the governorship of Pontius Pilate in Judea, and amongst the common people of the city. What John manages to do is, at the same time as he locates his story in history amongst seeming nobodies, is create a different sense of scale, and, therefore, gives us a very different perspective on the story of the Incarnation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We, who know the vast expanse of time occupied by the Cosmos, are flung back to the beginning of everything. We are asked to imagine an expanse of darkness and infinity, occupied only by God and the eternal Word that with God “ in the beginning.” The creation story from the Hebrew Bible is evoked and echoed in that simple phrase, “in the beginning,” and is then mixed with a strong dose of Platonic philosophy. God exists in the darkness, and shining out into that darkness is God’s Self Expression, that integral (yet identifiable) part of God that contained the essence of “ life” and that was the “ light of all people.”
John, however, is wary of removing us too far from our experience, that to which we can relate and brings us back into a closer time frame and tells us about another John, “ a man sent from God ... [who] came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.” The baptizer is juxtaposed with the Word, whom we learn
was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
The Word, God’s self expression, incarnates God into the world, and penetrates our reality. His presence, his import is hard to grasp, almost impossible, but there would be those who would recognise him as he entered the background of history to shine the light of God into its foreground, for “ the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” John places the Incarnation not only within history, but at the same times offers a metaphysical understanding of salvation. It is an account that powerfully juxtaposes the most mundane of specific historical detail and ordinary people with a perspective that takes the Divine vantage point of eternity.
I have often said that Christmas Eve is for the Baby Jesus and that Christmas morning is for the Cosmic Christ. But it does not have to be an either / or. The prologue to John’s Gospel shows us how the eternal, Cosmic Christ, God’s Self-Expression, enters into time and space as the person of Jesus Christ and intervenes directly in human history. God’s eternal Word, always present, shining light into the darkness, but unrecognised by so many, steps into the world, into the Roman Empire, and captures the foreground of history, transforming the world.
Today, at Christmas, estranged as we are from so many of the elements that make up our normal life, we see the light that shines in the darkness. We know that God has already broken into our reality and upset all the expected norms, brought, in fact, revolution. We can be filled with hope and expectation of what is to come, what the age that lies ahead of us will hold.
We are not merely readers of an epic tale to which our lives bear little relation. We are ourselves caught up in the sweeping historical forces wrought in that first Incarnation, heirs to those who have come before us, to those who encountered Jesus and who were transformed in and through works of love and justice. We have been given authority in our baptism to participate in the life of the Word made flesh and ourselves contribute to God’s self-expression into the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Christmas Eve, 24 December 2020
(1) Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. By Willard R. Trask, Fiftieth Anniversary ed. with a new intro. by Edward Said (Princeton: University Press, 2006), 43.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume