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Tuesday, December 23, 2014
The Birth of a Child Changes Everything (Christmas Eve 2014)
Homily: Christmas Eve (9pm) 2014, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 52.7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1.1-4, Jn 1.1-14
I have a friend, a clergy colleague who some years ago wanted to learn Biblical Greek. So he took a course, here in Ottawa at St. Paul University. His instructor didn’t use the usual method of lectures and textbooks and various exercises. Instead, he sat down with his students, and they opened a Greek version of the New Testament. They turned to the Gospel of John, and started working through the text that we just heard as our Gospel this evening.
en archE En ho logos. In the beginning was the Word.
And as they worked through the first chapter of John, they reviewed the prepositions, and they learned the verb tenses, and they wrestled with the genitives and the declensions and the rest of the grammar.
And my colleague, an assertive, goal-oriented guy, you might even call him an alpha male, he worked hard, and he was pretty good at it, and he stuck with it for all those weeks, going through the first chapter of John word by word, verse by verse, until he came to verse 14:
kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskEnOsen en hEmin.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
And my friend was moved to tears.
After weeks of wrestling with the Greek, with the big picture of God, the mysterious poetic language, the cosmic and universal significance of the Word and the light, verse 14 went, “Zap!”. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. No more big picture. No more grand philosophy or theology. A child is born. There is nothing more concrete, nothing more specific. Here’s the child that is born, this one, lying here in a manger beside Mary his mother. And the birth of a child changes everything.
If you’ve ever had a child, or been there for the birth, you know that when a child is born, the world changes. I remember the birth of my children, how can you ever forget. In that moment, the world changes. There was for me a sense of the miraculous, of awe, of wondering how can this be. You experience feelings of love for this little baby that you never knew you were capable of. I remember walking down the street of my neighbourhood on the day after my child was born, and the trees seemed taller and the birds sang louder, and there was a spring in my step and the whole experience felt surreal, like I had stepped into another time and place just beyond our everyday reality. The birth of a child can do that to you. Everything changes.
I have another friend who experienced this change, but in a very different way. When she became pregnant, it was a difficult pregnancy, and there was a serious risk that neither she nor her unborn child would survive the birth. And she was coming to term, she and her husband thought long and hard about this, and they met with the doctors and they came to an understanding. If things went wrong, right up until the moment of birth, the doctors were to make my friend’s life their priority, even if it meant the death of their unborn child. But the moment the child was born, the moment the baby had taken a first breath, the life of the child was to become the priority for the doctors, even if that meant the death of the mother. And my friend remembers in the moment just after she had given birth looking up and seeing the child in the arms of her husband. She remembered their decision and realized that it was now their child and no longer herself who was the priority. And in that moment, her world changed. The birth of a child changes everything.
God knows that the birth of a child is a life-changing experience for us. Perhaps that’s why God came to be born as a child in our world. He wanted to move us, to make us feel something. Because with the incarnation, when the child is born, when the Word becomes flesh, it’s not just philosophy, it’s not just theology anymore!
I asked my friend, the one who studied Greek, why was it that he was moved to tears as he translated that verse all those years ago. This is what he told me:
“All of a sudden I pictured this great, cosmic, mysterious God that I’d been wrestling with for weeks in my Greek translation, I pictured him as a baby, lying in a manger. And he was so small and so vulnerable. And his vulnerability touched my vulnerability, and the tears started to flow.”
The vulnerability of God as the Word become flesh speaks to our unspoken vulnerability. Because we are, each one of us, vulnerable. Oh sure, we try to hide it, we don’t talk about it very often, but much as we try to push it below the surface, we are vulnerable. The world has reminded us of that this past year. People like us taken hostage at a coffee shop. Innocents dying at the hands of police. Victims of ISIS, missing and murdered aboriginal women. My stuff and your stuff. We are vulnerable. Our relationships remind us of that every year, for to be in relationship is to make yourself vulnerable to another, and the flip side of love and joy can be tears and heartbreak when things are rough. No wonder we put up walls and hide our vulnerability deep inside.
But the irony, some might say the tragedy, of our human condition is that it is in our vulnerability that we’re at our best. Our vulnerability is the birthplace of much that is good and beautiful in our lives. It’s in our vulnerability that we are at our most compassionate and creative. It’s our vulnerability that opens up the possibility of intimacy in our lives, that brings us into relationship with others, and that’s what we were made for.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for me about Christmas is that it teaches me that what is true for humans and our vulnerability is also true for God.
It’s when God is most vulnerable that God is at God’s best!
For generations people had seen God as powerful, distant, even wrathful, and they had often acted in that image. And God said, this must change!
And so God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the almighty, the eternal, became powerless and vulnerable, born as child in Bethlehem. And when that happens we are moved, and the world changes. The vulnerability of God speaks to our unspoken vulnerability, and we are given the greatest Christmas gift of all, the gift of intimacy with God. This is how God chose to speak to us. This is how God chose to be with us. God became a child at Christmas so that we could become children of God.
Because the birth of a child changes everything.