The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
Thursday, 25 December 2016
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
Last week there appeared in The New York Times a column by a popular, conservative political columnist who often writes about religion. He is a Roman Catholic of a particularly moralistic stamp and I have to say I don’t really like his work. He expresses a kind of Catholic neo-conservatism wrapped up in a seemingly rationalistic shell that often appeals to unsuspecting people who get drawn in by how resonable he makes it all seem. This particular column, entitled “The Return of Paganism,” was widely shared on social media by a number of people I know well, usually with the comment “though provoking” and general approval.(1) Its basic point was that people today who are proverbially "spiritual but not religious" are a growing segment of the population that will soon outnumber Christians and Jews and that by their focus on this world are somehow expressing pagan beliefs we should reject.
Personally, the article really rubbed me the wrong way. He quite intentionally sets up a false dualism between the immanence of paganism and the transcendence of Christianity and Judaism. The wonder of these two latter faiths is that they tell the story of the immanent activity of the transcendent God of history. Christianity and Judaism are at their cores about how God intervenes decisively in history and sanctifies this world and makes important everything done here in time and space as we cooperate with God in the unfolding of the Kingdom. The author’s vision of an ideal, transcendent Christianity, unconcerned with the things of this world, except as they relate to personal morality and behaviour, is quite antithetical to the Gospel. His castigation of a theologically-light (lite?), left wing Christian Social Gospel also patently ignores the strongly theological, nay Gospel centred, origin of Christian social engagement.
Indeed, the most powerful reality of Christianity is that it values the world, places what we do here at the centre of importance, announces decisively that the world is the plane of divine activity, that here and now the Kingdom of God is unfolding before our eyes; and it does this without identifying God with creation. Nowhere is the importance of the world and the clarity that God is not the same thing as creation, more clearly expressed than in the foundational narrative of the Incarnation. Rather than sweep the righteous out of this existence, enfold them in a far away heaven, divinise humanity, make us perfect, God enters into the rough and tumble of our world, and does so in the most humble of ways, helping us perfect our humanity. That vision of Jesus’ birth we heard last night in Luke’s Gospel is cemented into history, inverting the values of the secular world, but nevertheless establishing that we are called into a great project and that we have work to do.
This morning we hear the words of the Fourth Gospel talking from a different vantage point about the same great intervention:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
God, who made the world, who expressed the world into being, now enters into that world in the particular expression of the Word made flesh. While that world is imperfect and people have made up their own scale of values, God shines a light upon what is truly important, reorienting us, pointing us in a better direction.
The true light that enlightens every [one] was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 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 nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
The light calls to us and we have a choice, we have freedom to respond. Some will respond and others will not, but the place where we have this power, this “power to become children of God” is here and it is now. The Word, walking in our physical form and substance, teaches us the way, ultimately taking action on the cross to render powerless the forces of death.
Rather than summon us towards transcendence, the Word made flesh calls us into immanent connection, immanent relationship with God and with each other, and carries us off into the march of the Kingdom of God unfolding even in these days. We can set up all the straw men we like, we can castigate people for wanting to be more deeply connected with each other and with the world and say it is fundamentally un-Christian, or we can remind the world that something else is happening. We can assert the truth that caring for the earth and each other is a fundamental part of the Divine, transcendent activity that is happening at all times and in all places and that we are called to be a part of something monumental and more powerful than our own self improvement or self interest.
The Word made flesh whose Incarnation we celebrate today, whose glory we behold, points us both to that which never fades away and to action in this world of change. It is not an either or, but rather the quintessential both/and. God’s loving purpose is unchanging and expressing itself here, now, in every moment in time and space and calls us to engage it as long as we have breath.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018
(1) Ross Douthat, "The Return of Paganism," The New York Times, 12 December 2018 (click here for full article)
©2018 Andrew Charles Blume