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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on December 25, 2005

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Christmas 2005

Sermon preached by

The Rev. Ethan Cole

December 25, 2005

Why is Christmas such an important feast of the Christian year? It is a good time to ward off the powers of wintry darkness by gathering together family and friends for a cheerful celebration that at last the days are finally getting longer. It is as good a time as any to show our affection for those we love with the exchange of gifts carefully chosen to delight those to whom they are given. In a time of year when cold and darkness and gloom are so prevalent it is good to sing cheery songs and eat comfortable and delicious foods and drinks that gladden our hearts. It is a good time of year to be inspired to charity by the lonely and less fortunate who will not have these delights that the fortunate among us do and some of us are inspired to charity by the approaching end of the fiscal year. These are the trappings around our Christmas celebration here, but I think they are incidental-not the heart of it.

In the Southern Hemisphere it is the height of summer, and days are beginning to shorten. Many who live on two dollars a day cannot exchange gifts in a flurry as many of us do. "Jingle Bells" feels a bit out of place in 90-degree weather. Turkeys and many other of our familiar foods are hard to come by in much of the world. Despite all this it is still Christmas and the churches are as packed as they are here-in many places more so!

What then is at the heart of this festival that stirs celebration in our hearts whether we are Christians in Buffalo or Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa? What so fires our religious imagination about this night?

Of course the story itself is so powerful. I am struck and deeply touched every time I hear Linus van Pelt from the "Charlie Brown Christmas" recite the famous words from Luke's Gospel:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The angelic song of praise is one of the most beautiful and moving hymns in all of scripture. After all the words of doom that we have heard from the prophets, after all the threats of divine wrath and indignation at the sorry state that humanity has gotten itself. Even though the prophet says: he is like a refiners fire and who can stand when he appears? We are still standing. The angelic song is one of great comfort: God's desire for humanity is peace, and his dealings with us are full of gracious good will.

Yet the story is compelling for more reasons than its great comfort. It is compelling because the sign of God's favor toward us is so strange-not at all what we would have expected. The sign of God's favor is not a mighty righteous but merciful King who will set all earthly wrongs to right. The sign of God's favor is an infant of obviously low means because his resting place is a cow's feeding trough. Yet an angelic multitude has declared it to be so. So we like Mary keep all these things and ponder them in our hearts. The meaning of Christ's lowly birth is not immediately evident, but it invites us to reflection and contemplation of a mystery that will unfold over the course of Jesus' ministry and teaching and finally in his death, resurrection and ascension.

But it was another gospel passage we heard proclaimed tonight with great solemnity, a passage that says nothing of infants or angels. St. John the Evangelist unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation beneath the mystery of the Nativity. John's gospel was the last gospel written. Christians had had years to reflect on the theological meaning of what happened at Bethlehem before St. John put pen to paper. John wrote with great poetical beauty the great Truth about that night in a stable outside of Bethlehem.

Logos, which we translate simply as "Word" in English, but which is in fact a deeply rich and nuanced word in Greek, whose range of meaning encompasses, reason, logic, speech, rationality, and indeed, the governing principle by which all things are ordered-this Logos who has dwelt with God from the beginning, from before the beginning-this Logos who is himself also God-this Logos who is the very voice and speech of the Father proclaiming, "Let there be light"-this Logos through whom all things were made, and thereby all things that are bear his mark-this Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.

This is quite simply astonishing. If it is true we are right to be here. There is hardly anywhere else we could be. If it is true we must join our voices to the angelic song, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men." God's goodwill toward humanity has extended to the extreme humility of the God who is the principle which orders the universe, all universes, everything from the smallest sub-atomic quark to spinning galaxies and blazing stars, the eternal Word and Son of the Father has become a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a cow's feeding trough. "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

To the wise philosophers of the ancient Greek world, and to not a few wise philosophers of today this idea is ridiculous, an absurdity of the highest order. This is what it means for Saint Paul to say that the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks. To claim that God became human as Christians claim is unpalatable to many. It makes no sense. How and why could or would God do such a thing. Did the creator become a creature? Is this a nonsense question along the same order of "Can God make a stone so heavy he can't lift it?"? If the incarnation is true, this is God destroying the wisdom of the wise and thwarting the discernment of the discerning. He replaces wisdom with his Wisdom, who is Christ the lowly child. He replaces all our expectations and predictions about what the mighty God will do to save us with the salvation offered by a poor baby in a manger. All that we, the wise, the effective, the capable, the strong, the educated, the competent, can do to ensure our own health and salvation is reduced to nothing and replaced by the salvation offered by an infant wrapped in bands of cloth who will die as a political criminal on a cross in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

We know that the only boast of our salvation is in God in Christ, and the extreme humility of God invites us into developing the virtue of humility in ourselves, but there is another answer to the question, why did God do this wondrous thing in becoming flesh and dwelling among us?

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century said, "What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved."
There is a story about an incident in our corporate past where a certain couple ate what they were not supposed to eat. That great Puritan poet John Milton opened his epic, "Paradise Lost" by singing, "Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe." Whether one believes that Eden is history or sacred myth, the truth is that we were not made to be broken as we are. Our life of lies and wars and petty evils and malices inflicted and endured is not what we were made for. We were made for peace, and joy, and communion with our God and with each other. But every aspect of human life has some piece of that forbidden fruit grafted into it. There is no part of our humanity untouched by sin. Our ideals, our relationships with one another, our innermost thoughts, our societies and associations from the family, to the community, to the nation, to the world even at our best have something of sin in it.

But God at Christmas in his becoming flesh did not so much come down from heaven as he did draw humanity up into the divine. Jesus Christ assumed a human body to redeem all human bodies, he took on a human mind to redeem all human minds, he took on a human spirit and soul in order to heal every human soul. Jesus took on a human heart to bind up every human broken heart. God became fully, completely, totally human so that every aspect of our humanity, ourselves, our souls and bodies could have undone in them that woe that has plagued us from the first.

This is the good news of Christmas: in Christ a new kind of humanity has been born: a humanity not estranged from God but a humanity that knows God as a loving parent. Christ is the first fruits and we are invited to follow. Our Christian walk is that day by day we are drawn deeper and deeper into the love he offers us. As we are fed by the food he has given us from the bidden tree that is himself, he un-grafts from us that forbidden fruit and draws us deeper and deeper into the divine life, making us his adopted brothers and sisters. From the mystery of the Nativity and the Incarnation we can see nothing but the fullness of God's goodness, and good will, and love toward us. And we say with John the Evangelist, "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." Amen.

 

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�2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York