Christmas Day: Opening the Gift
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
Christmas Day Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
The Reverend Tyler Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
This Christmas morning, we don’t hear about the Shepherds, or the Magi, or the “No Vacancy” sign, or the visitation, or the Magnificat, or any of the things we’ve come to associate with Christmas. Instead, we are taken back, way back—before there even was a Bethlehem, and before there was even time itself.
These opening lines of John’s Gospel are really a kind of recapitulation of the creation story; Genesis redux with the Christ as the logos, the Word, the ordering principle, providing the shape, the pattern, and the arc of how things hang together—“All things came into being through him.” Coffee beans, cornfields, Czechoslovakia—all things, John reminds us, mediate God’s presence to us. That we see Jesus in the manger—swaddled in cloth, packed in mud and straw, the tiny infant’s cry piercing the dumbstruck silence of that holy night—is a pointer to us, an invitation, to see Christ in all things. It’s a call to see the face of God in the midst of what we might call “ordinary” life. “All things came into being through him”—Chickadees, cirrus clouds, and chainsaws—all threads woven in a dancing sacramental tapestry.
St. John sets before us a startling, mind-blowing reality. Christmas isn’t something that happened 2017 years ago in a dusty little out of the way town in Galilee. Christmas, the shining forth of the glory of God without remainder, with nothing held back, happens at the heart of each moment of existence. Jesus Christ, the Word, the logos, is that invisible light that shines up through a sidewalk crack crammed with cigarette butts while we wait for the bus, that lights up something as ordinary and unmystical as drinking a glass of water, or sharing soggy microwave reheat french fries with your kid. Each moment, each encounter—no matter how apparently ordinary—is actually the coming into being of Christ Himself. Christ coming into being stopped at a traffic light. Christ coming into being in the line at the grocery. Christ coming into being in the ICU. All of it, without exception is by Him, and with Him and in Him as it says in our doxology at the end of our Eucharistic prayer. This reality—of seeing each moment as part of the mystical body of Christ, of seeing each moment burgeoning forth with God as its horizon—is what John wants us to see about Christmas. Annunciations, mangers, shining stars, angelic hosts, shepherds going home by a different road with their eyes and hearts blown wide open—these all take place smack dab in the middle of our ordinary lives if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Christmas in July? St. John would scoff. Christmas in each nano-second? Now, you might get his attention.
These opening lines of the Gospel According to John remind us that everything is woven into a sacramental tapestry that mediates the glory of God. And the great temptation of the Christian life is to get intoxicated by the poetry of it all and to forget that it points to a reality we are to embody, a life we are to make our own, a potential we are to bring to fruition, to realize, in this very life. The great temptation of Christmas is to be lulled into a beatific, pious slumber and to miss the unceasing and all-inclusive invitation to the banquet of Divine Welcome, to the feast of fullness and abundance of life, to the party that’s been in full swing since the foundation of the world.
The gift of God’s very self in Jesus—what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls, “the exact imprint of God’s very being”—has been given to us already. The love of God has been poured into our hearts by Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Christ dwells within our very hearts. That’s the light that shines through the darkness of our shame, our confusion, our isolation, our fear, our loneliness, our anger, our unforgiveness. That light, which tells us we are loved, that we are not alone, that nothing can separate us from the love of God or revoke our invitation to the banquet, that light is who we really are. That light is the place we are called to live from—not from the sham darknesses of lack, fear, scarcity, and shame. The light of Christ shining in the manger of your heart, that is the light that no darkness can overcome. It’s a light that is given—undeserved, unearned, unmerited—as an extravagant gift to everyone without exception: “…and the life was the light of all people.”
So we don’t have to do anything to “earn” the gift—otherwise it wouldn’t be a gift at all, but some kind of contractual transaction that has nothing to do with self-forgetful, agape love. But (you knew there was a but coming), we do have to open the gift. We do have to realize, to make real, our potential in Christ. We have to give our consent, the little mustard seed of our “yes” to God, for the gift to be opened in us, and for the little mud and straw mangers of our hearts to be transfigured into places where God happens, where God discovers Himself in us. God loves us so much that he will not compel us to love Him. That is what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. We are given the freedom to open the gift, to realize our potential, or go a different way—"He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” We can choose to leave the gift that has already been given us under the tree to collect dust. We can forget about it entirely. We can deny its very existence. But that gift never goes away. It never gets returned to sender. It is always there waiting patiently for our little “yes” to sprout, and bloom, and flower in our lives.
Of course, God does not smite us if we don’t open the gift (a kind of Christmas at gunpoint model of God) but as the poet Denise Levertov writes, “the gates close, the pathway vanishes.” The invitation to larger life, the doorway to abundance, and path to fullness of life disappears—but only for a moment. God keeps showing up—hanging around like a bad smell as my father used to say—with other invitations, other annunciations with which our lives are literally littered. That same God of steadfast covenant faithfulness reaches out again and again in what might seem like lots of different invitations. In reality, there is only the one invitation that has sounded since before time—the invitation to Love, the invitation to discover who we are, and who we are made to be. Come.
Which brings me, predictably perhaps, to our friend Athanasius who asked in his little treatise, On the Incarnation the $64,000 question—"Why did God become human?” To make a long story short, Athanasius argues that God became human that we might be united with God, and enjoy union and communion with Him. God wants to share His very life with us and it is in becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus that he makes this possible—"God became human that human beings might become God,” is the slogan you’ll hear bandied about.
Now, we sometimes hear phrases like Athanasius’, “God became human that human beings might become God,” as a fanciful bit of mildly heretical poetry that might have captured the imaginations of the Greek fathers, but sounds a little too bold, too startling, too mind-boggling for us to take seriously. After all, Christianity is about being a good person and trying hard to be nice, right? It was Stanley Hauerwas who when asked what he learned in Sunday school mawkishly replied in his best Texan drawl—“Jesus was niiiice, and we should be niiiice too.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being nice to people. In a country as divided as this one, where people of good will can hardly sit in the same room and discuss their differences, a little nice would seem to go a long way. But the trouble comes when we think that “being nice” is the source and summit of the Christian life. We content ourselves with half a loaf, and convince ourselves that Athanasius and Irenaeus were likely a little over-caffeinated, or inebriated on a heady brew of Jesus and Greek metaphysics and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Putting on the mind of Christ, giving birth to Christ in our hearts, seeing with the eye of the heart enlightened, discovering and becoming the light that no darkness can overcome—that is the true meaning of Christmas. Linus might not have said it so many words, but looking into that creche is really like gazing into the mirror. It shows you that right there in the ordinary mud-and straw of your daily life—with its cavities, car payments, crying babies, canned corn—Jesus is waiting to be born. Not even waiting to be born—Christ is born, Christ is living his life in you already, and blazes forth from the heart of each moment with a blinding glory that puts 4th of July to shame. The only question is whether we will make a little space at the inn. Caesar Augustus’ soldiers pounded on the door demanding to register everyone, but the one who knocks at the door of the heart begging entrance, knocks so softly, it’s easy to miss. Bend the knee of your heart. Listen close. Do you hear it?