The Eve of the Incarnation of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)
24 December 2011
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
Tuesday before last, my wife and I were at home watching television, as we are wont to do, and we tuned into the Christmas episode of Glee. I have to admit that for me, Glee is a bit of a guilty pleasure, although I think I enjoy it more than Jacalyn does. In a way, a Christmas episode of Glee could embody all the worst elements of that show—mawkish sentimentality that ultimately brings us around to a politically correct, but weak and generic, message of inclusion, concluding that “the true meaning of Christmas” simply means that it is better to give than receive. In reality, however, (and not simply because of the awesome cover of the Waitresses’ 1981 classic “Christmas Wrapping”), the Glee Christmas episode was quite well done. It did what much of the best Christmas popular culture does, it really did remind us of what Christmas really means and what implications that has for how we live our lives.
Towards the end of the episode, as part of the inevitable and purposefully clichéed Christmas show, one of the characters surprises everyone (including me) when, quoting the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, he reads the Nativity story from Luke that we heard as our Gospel tonight rather than Frosty the Snowman. Even in this world of relentless popular culture references, the young performers are jolted out of their own, self-interested mind-set as they hear the real Christmas story, the story of God entering into world in the person of the infant Christ, and realise that they must share their gifts and talents with those in need, which they do. They seem to get that the true meaning of Christmas, God’s in-breaking into the world, forces us to move beyond our petty concerns and impels us into the world as heralds and actors of the Gospel of love.
In the world of strange juxtapositions, the message of this year’s Glee Christmas episode struck me again last Friday, when I attended the Christmas Carol service at St James’ Church for William’s School. I found Glee’s Christmas message was not terribly different from that of a Christmas carol that was an integral part of my own school boy experience of this great festival and that I am now sharing with William. John Mason Neale’s 1853 “Good King Wenceslas,” set to that wonderful thirteenth-century carol melody, unfolds, as we all know, on the Feast of Saint Stephen, the second day of Christmas. It consists of a dialogue between the king and his page about the needs of a poor man the former espies “gathering winter fuel.” The king is concerned about this man's welfare in these festal days and inquires where he lives and calls for “flesh and wine” and “pine logs” that might be brought to the man. Rather than simply send the young page and other servants to the man’s house, we sing that “page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.” It is a tough journey, one the king feels he must make himself, for he understands and exemplifies Neale’s moral:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
As a consequence of the abundance of grace revealed at the feast of the Incarnation, Wenceslas knows that the duty of the Christian, especially those of us who are the beneficiaries of great privilege, is to make the effort, even in the harshest of conditions, to think of the needs of others and serve those in need.
It is on this most holy night that we come face to face with the true meaning of Christmas and we are reminded that it makes a difference to our lives, changes our lives, changes us, and calls us to great things. Indeed, God came to us as a child and bearer of love, and that coming changed everything. Just as every parent discovers that the birth of a child alters their world irrevocably, the world discovered that with the birth of the Son of God, nothing would ever be the same again.
On this night, we remember that God made a decision, acted definitively in the course of history, and united himself to us and all creation in the person of Jesus Christ. God became incarnate, taking on our humanity and yet retained his divinity, retained his steadfast purpose and will to act only in love. He became incarnate, as Adam reminded us this past Sunday in his excellent sermon, as each of us does, by being born of a woman. He came into the world as an infant, the most vulnerable of humans, and grew into manhood to take up his vocation to bring the Nations into relationship with the God of Israel by using only the power of love.
This true meaning of Christmas has consequences, for that which changed everything was nothing less than love itself breaking into our world, filling our world with the potential of love to change things, to make real differences in the lives of real people. God’s coming into the world was not some philosophical idea, but was an event, an action, that had is effect upon the lives of every creature on earth. How he came into the world, then, makes a difference. Jesus did not come as a mighty warrior or as some sort of all-powerful eastern Potentate. If he had, then, he would have used the powers of the world, the powers of force and coercion to achieve his ends and that would be our model. It matters that he came as a child. It matters that he took up the simple vocation of carpenter. It matters that he ministered to people as a preacher, teacher, and rabbi. It matters that he always acted in love, preferring persuasion to coercion. It matters because we now have our pattern, the pattern into which he calls us, for God’s coming into the world in love and as a child means that we are called to orient our lives towards love.
More than this, it means that we are to specifically orient our lives towards caring for the world God has made and given us to care for. We are to care for the creatures of that world and, above all, for our fellow human beings, especially those who, like the Christ Child on the night he first breathed the air of this world, are the most vulnerable among us. The true meaning of Christmas, that God acted, gave to us the Messiah, the Christ, in the form of the human and divine child Jesus, changed the world and changes us and beckons us into this night to spread abroad the love of God.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
The Eve of Saint Thomas the Apostle, 20 December 2011
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume