The Eve of the Incarnation of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)
24 December 2007
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech thee, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Early on in my friendship with Father Harding, my new colleague here at Saint Ignatius, we shared with each other our particular love for New York City at Christmas time. Since we both grew-up in Manhattan, our memories of cold, dark nights, pierced by fairy lights and glowing Christmas trees on Park Avenue or Broadway and glimpsed in apartment windows, form a deep and abiding part of our consciousness. Indeed, most people that I know who love New York feel this way. And yet, it is deeply illogical. When looked at from another perspective, what is there possibly to like about these long dark nights and grey days and the bad weather. This is supposed to be the time when the world lays dormant, when flowers are scarce, the farmer’s markets are gearing down leaving only a few hardy producers, and the new life of Spring and the warmth of Summer seem furthest away. And yet, I can’t convince myself that the summer holds more promise of love and reconciliation than the inner warmth of this time of year. And I am sure that this has a great deal to do with Christmas.
And that, too is, of course illogical. First of all, setting the date of Christmas in December was something that the leaders of the early Church did several hundred years after the Incarnation itself, and based upon their having fixed upon March 25 as the date of Jesus’ death (you can ask me about all this later). And even if the actual date was in December, the weather in first-century Judea was nothing like that of twenty-first century New York or even medieval and early-modern Europe, where our Christmas customs developed.
The fact remains, however, that the light and warmth of the Incarnation, of God’s breaking through in love into the world transcends these little problems. If all this fuss were just about what happened once, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, it would simply be an interesting historical oddity, if we remembered it at all. No, the Incarnation in Bethlehem changed the world irrevocably. The Incarnation in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago has its resonances each and every day everywhere in the world. God acted and continues to act for us in our current circumstances and makes his impact upon us and meets us where we are. God speaks to us, tonight, in New York City, out of the darkness of the “bleak mid-winter,” God speaks to us in his own way, calling us into relationship with him in the person of the Child born in the Manger.
Throughout this past Advent, the part of my mind that actually thinks about the Bible (remember I am an Episcopalian) has been brought back time and again to a passage from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near ....For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:6, 8-9). And while this passage is not actually appointed in the lectionary for Advent, it speaks to me profoundly about the mystery and power of the how we look towards and for the Incarnation. In the same way that the mystery of the Resurrection (the feast at which this lesson is read) teaches us that God acts in surprising and ways—ways that would be hard for us to imagine a powerful creator God acting—the watching and waiting of Advent also calls us to reexamine our notions of how and where and when we might actually encounter Emmanuel, God with us. Over and over again, God shows us that his ways are not our ways and our thoughts are not his thoughts. Over and over again, God teaches us to expect him in the unexpected places and at the unexpected times. Just this past Sunday we read in Isaiah of a king who refused to “seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” and who was nonetheless given a sign of God’s steadfast love, a sign that came in the form of a child, born to a young woman, who will be called Immanuel and whose coming will altar the political landscape of the known world for generations to come (Isaiah 7:10-17). This sign was the sign not asked for, this was the unimaginable sign, not a sign of conventional power, but one of God’s love, expressed in the miracle of the birth of a child.
When Matthew read this passage, he immediately knew that God had acted again in the unconventional way. He saw that God had sent the sign of his own very presence and that this time Emmanuel was really Emmanuel, coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ so that the world would could truly repent—truly turn their lives around—and live out God’s great commandment that we should love him with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength, and that in showing our love for God, we must love our neighbours as ourselves. The Incarnation that we celebrate tonight and that reaches out to us in fresh ways through the darkness of our Northern Christmas is the becoming flesh of God, the advent of God with us in the person of that small child born in a stable to a young Jewish woman in a little corner of the Roman Empire. This is God’s ultimate sign of the way in which he turns the world upside down and acts for us in love, showing us that perhaps the things that we value—money, power, professional success, physical strength, popularity—pale in comparison to the things that God values—innocence, love, relationship, interdependence, and caring for those in need.
Tonight is a night of inversions, of the world turned upside-down, of unexpected, God driven change. The deepest of seasonal, emotional, spiritual darkness is turned into the ardent light of love. The child is the one upon whose shoulders will be the government of the world. The little child and not some old man with a beard, is the one called “Wonderful Counsellor” and “Prince of Peace.” The little child is our “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father.”
We are called tonight out of the darkness in which we may find ourselves, we are called out of ourselves and into relationship, we are called from our human notions of what is good for us and of what we need, to contemplate and experience God’s deepest desires for us, which is nothing more and nothing less than that we are connected with him in love, that we tune our minds to seeing him in the faces of those we love, of those we do not yet know, and especially of those in need, that we see that the greatest expression of God’s power comes in the form of a helpless infant, at the mercy of the world, and whom we know will be the one who defeats death itself.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Christmas Eve, 24 December 2007
©2007 Andrew Charles Blume