The Meaning of Christmas
A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Christmas Eve 2015
The Advent wreath is all lit, the crèche is here and all are present and correct in it. The wise men are somewhere over there, starting their journey to the stable. The greens and bows bedeck the church, turkeys have been purchased, the presents have been delivered (yeah?), the weather outside is really cold and crisp, just like it should be in New York in late December, right??
Everything is just as it should be, well, maybe not the weather. But, yes, everything is as it should be. It’s just another normal Christmas. Just another normal Christmas.
We hear, and have heard, the Christmas story so often that it is a seamless part of our culture and folklore as much as it is about our spiritual and theological life and it is probably a truism to say that its ubiquity and pervasiveness has habituated us to the point where we are so acclimatized to it that we take it almost without question. In other words, it’s the same old same old. Just regular normal.
After all, it’s just the everyday story of a poor teenage girl who gets pregnant with the Son of God in some sort of weird hermaphroditic process that defies biology, after a meeting with a man with wings; who gives birth in a smelly outhouse and has a visit from a group of Zoroastrian magicians with somewhat strange gifts of decidedly limited utility. What could be more normal than that?
I think that it is a good thing to think of it like that from time to time. To step back a little from all the ho-ho-ho and festive fun and consider what exactly it is that we are celebrating.
This morning my wife, Kelly, greeted me with a ‘Happy Christmas’. And, indeed, Christmas is something to be happy about. But then she said (and this is the really brilliant part): ‘today is the start of Easter’. She speaks the truth. Because if we ask ourselves ‘Why Christmas?’, the only answer is ‘Easter’. Easter is the reason for the season. If we only think of Jesus coming to earth in order to be a nice guy hanging out and being kind to people, then we miss the point entirely.
So, allow me at this point to get distinctly unfestive.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and created each and every living thing, and created each and every one of us in his own image. God and his creation existed in perfect and mutual happiness and joy. But then something got in the way of that and spoiled it. The book of Genesis in the Bible talks about it as The Fall. The temptation in the Garden of Eden. That something that got in the way was evil in all its forms.
From that point on God yearned to be re-united to his creation – to us – because we are his children and he loves each one of us and, like any child of ours, we cherish that child, want to be with it, and would do anything for it – including giving up our own lives if need be.
Evil got in the way of that direct relationship with God and prevented us being at one with God in the way he longed for and – if we are honest with ourselves – the way we long for as well. Evil contaminates everything to some extent or other, sometimes in major ways, but also in very small amounts – you know, the little things that aren’t exactly major wrongdoings, but things that in some way have become tainted by selfishness, or spitefulness, or carelessness.
How the entity of evil, in all its forms, came to be is something that we and every mind throughout history have grappled with. Some see it as an actual and existential set of beings –forces that are at work in this world. Some see it as more allegorical, something abstract that we label evil to give a description to a concept. And what do I think? Well, I’m not sure that I have an answer, but what I do know is that we believe in the spiritual realm, because we know the existence of God, who is present to us in our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and acknowledging the existence of a spiritual realm means that we ought to be able to therefore acknowledge that that realm can contain evil as well as good.
Whether evil is an actual entity, or a philosophical and theological concept, what we do know about it is that it definitely exists, and that it spoils things and ruins lives and that it stands between us and God. And I believe that Jesus came to earth as a baby, and lived and died in the way he did to stop evil having the last word. Jesus birth and death opened up the way again for us to be at one with God.
Now, I appreciate that this isn’t really a very jolly sermon, and that you were probably coming here wanting something a bit more merry and bright. So, let me turn for a moment to that well-known Christmas carol, ‘Away in a manger’. Our choir will sing it later on. ‘Away in a Manger’ is certainly very Christmassy. Distinctly festive, merry and bright. Well, yes, except for that bit in verse two which might be heretical.
O come, on, seriously?
Well, there are some theologians that suggest that the line, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’, might suggest that Jesus was in some way not fully human. It has a more technical theological name than that, but that’s the gist of it. Now, I think those theologians might be taking it a bit far, but they do make an important point.
But why is it so important that Jesus was in every little way fully human, in other words, a regular, crying, puking, baby, a willful, headstrong teenager, and a man with all our normal hopes and fears, joys and sadnesses?
Let me come back to that in a moment. Because first I want to turn my attention to another central figure in the Christmas story.
Time and again, we are presented with images of the Virgin Mary in literature and art as cool, calm, collected and compliant. Perhaps. But I think not. And I think that this does the Virgin Mary a disservice. I strongly suspect that Mary, far from being the cool, calm and collected person we are so used to seeing, agreeing with this bizarre chain of events without hesitation was, in fact, not just bewildered but actually terrified.
Downright scared. My point is this: anyone who’s cool, calm and collected can say ‘yes, so be it’. And perhaps if you’re utterly petrified, you might say ‘yes’ out of a sense of coercion. But it takes real guts to say it and really mean it when you’re terrified out of your mind.
We know that Mary didn’t only say ‘yes’ but that she really meant it, really came on board with the vision of bearing God’s son, because her heart was so moved that she composed a poem, which you can read in St. Luke’s Gospel, in which she paints the most wonderful vision of what the Kingdom of God will look like. In this respect, Mary’s poem is firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah in his message in our first reading tonight, which firmly sets out Mary’s future Son’s teaching: that the Kingdom of Heaven is not just some distant hope, but also a present reality, if we care to embrace it. A world where we see God in the face of absolutely every one we meet. Everyone, no exceptions.
And Mary conceives, and bears a son, and calls him Jesus. Son of God. And although the very point of this birth was that God wanted to get into the mess of this world we live in, we all too readily overlook Christ’s humanity in preference for his divinity. For me, the fact that Jesus is as fully human as he is fully divine, is a source of great gladness, because it reinforces that in becoming one of us, God cares about things earthly and is alongside us not only in the lovely, kind and wonderful bits but also in the messy and nasty bits of human existence too.
This is why it is so important that we recognize that Jesus, in his birth, comes to us as fully human – with all that implies – as well as fully divine.
Evil can only be overcome by good. And we are not strong enough by ourselves to overcome it, because we are tainted by it. But Jesus, born into our world as God in human form, and therefore, literally, the embodiment of pure and perfect good, 100% so, meant that evil had no leverage, no purchase, no hold at all over him, and allowed Jesus to take on everything that separates us from God. To defeat evil in all its forms and to restore us to that time when nothing got in the way of that pure, kind, lovely relationship with God and therefore, each other.
And that message is definitely very Christmassy!