Monday, December 24, 2012
Whose Birth Are We Celebrating? (Christmas 2012)
Homily: Christmas Eve 2012, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1:1-4; Jn 1:1-18
There is nothing more joyful, nothing that makes for celebration like the birth of a child. The pictures, the phone calls, the tweets and posts and emails. This is good news, good news worth sharing.
Tonight, we celebrate a birth. But whose birth are we celebrating?
Well, you might say that we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus. And I suppose you’d be right. But did you notice that in the gospel reading that we just heard, that’s not the answer that John gives us. John is definitely writing about birth; but it’s not Jesus birth, it’s ours.
“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, or the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God.”
The birth we celebrate tonight is our own birth, our own birth as sons and daughters of God. The good news we share tonight isn’t just the story of a baby born to a peasant woman in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. No, it’s much more personal than that.
Christmas is the story of who I am. It is a story of identity for each one of us. If I was ask you the question, “who are you?”, how would you answer? Often the answers we give to the question of identity are quite limited. We tend to see ourselves as autonomous individuals. We have a name, we have a physical body that is distinct and separate from other physical bodies. We may identify with our job or other things that we do. Perhaps we identify with our personal histories, perhaps we identify with our thoughts and beliefs.
But I think that we start to get a much richer answer to the question of identity when we leave behind the notion of ourselves as distinct and separate individuals and instead embrace a vision of ourselves as relational beings. Suppose I was to realize that what makes me me is my relationship with you. Suppose I was to realize that my very identity, my meaning and purpose in life is to be found in and through my relationships.
And suppose, just suppose that the one who was in the beginning, the one through whom all things came into being, the one who is the very source of life and light and the universe itself, suppose that this one that we call God wanted to be in relationship with me. I think that if such a relationship was possible, its impact on us would be so dramatic, so life altering that the best image we could find for it would be that of a new birth.
But is it possible? As I expect you know, the basis of any relationship is good communication. Any decent marriage counselor can tell you that. And that’s where the unfolding story that we’re part of hadn’t been going so well. You see, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, for thousands of years, God had been trying to communicate with our ancestors in many and various ways, apparently with limited success. You see, none of us have ever seen God, and as a result, communication with God has been a challenge.
So God decided to speak with us in a radically new and different way. God has spoken to us through a Son. The Word which was in the beginning, the Word which was with God, which was God, that Word has become flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas is the ultimate act of divine-human communication. In Jesus, we get to see what God is like. We get to ask our questions. We get answers, in words we can understand and actions that we can relate to. No one has ever seen God. But it is God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
And this opens up for us a remarkable possibility, the possibility of entering into relationship with God himself. Because if the message of Jesus birth, if the message of Jesus’ words and deeds, can be summed up and distilled, it would be, it continues to be, quite simply, that God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.
God has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure we get that message.
And now the ball is in our court. Christmas is an act of communication. The message has been sent. Do we receive it? The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Do we believe it? Our response matters, because as John tells us, to all who receive him, to all who believe in his name he gives the power to become children of God, born not of flesh and blood, but of God.
There is a sort symmetry here, isn’t there. God became the child of human parents, so that we could become children of God. The good news of Christmas for us is that God, by becoming human and living among us has announced the truth about who we were created to be: children of God, loved by God.
And this is the life which is offered to us at Christmas. John tells us that it’s the Word that gives life. And he’s not talking about mere physical or biological life, but rather life in all its abundance, life that is plugged into the truth of who we were created to be.
All of us received our biological life by being born of our parents, but the life that John is talking about comes not from being born of human parents but from being born of God. It is the life that is hinted at in the joy we experience at the birth of a child and in the ecstasy of falling in love, the life that is glimpsed when we feel ourselves lifted up by our Christmas celebration or any other celebration. It is life that is more than just daily existence, it is the life that is the light of the world, life that overcomes darkness, the life that we long for.
The good news of Christmas is that through the mystery of the incarnation God is telling us that he loves us and wants us as his children. Does this make a difference? I think that it does.
In our time and place, here in the twenty-first century, there are two narratives about life which are offered to us. One is the narrative of biological life. This first story tells us that our lives are the product of chance, that our bodies are collections of atoms, and that compared to the vast expanse of time and space in the universe, we are small, insignificant, and meaningless. The immense force and energy of the world in which we live are indifferent towards us. Our choices and our actions are either physical reactions to chemical changes within us or arbitrary decisions that have no intrinsic value or universal meaning. We’re born, we live, we die. End of story.
And then there is a second narrative, one that tells us that we are more than material bodies, more than the product of chance. We are created beings, created for a purpose with lives that overflow with value and meaning. We have the inherent dignity of being made in the image of our Creator. We were made to love one another and to enter into relationship. Behind the immense physical forces of our world is a sustaining presence which is even greater, a divine presence which is not indifferent to us, but rather cares for us and reaches out to us. The source of life, the creator of all things, loves us and wants to draw us into a relationship which will endure beyond our biological lives.
The good news of Christmas is that this second narrative is our story. The joy we feel this night is no delusion but rather a taste of what we were created for. The birth of the child that we celebrate this night is indeed good news for us.
May it fill your hearts with peace and joy.