Sermon for High Mass of Christmas Day Friday 25 December 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory’.
The first phrase here – ‘the Word became flesh’ – is an attempt to describe what we can’t fully understand. John is saying just this: that the birth of the baby described by Luke and Matthew was a miraculous intersection of the creative power of God with our lives, the mixing and folding and blending of something infinite, and without beginning, into the beginning of a poor and precarious human life.
‘The Word’ is John’s way of describing the organizing principle of creation, the creative spark: St John is saying that what lies behind our existence, God, who brought it all to life (or perhaps gave it ‘mass’ as theoretical physicists say), that first cause, God, chose to come out of the shadows and be seen and known and touched and heard.
Then John tells us that God, the Word, not only became human, but ‘lived among us’. These verses are an introduction: the rest of the story which follows, in all the gospels is about God continuing to be with us, living among us. This wasn’t a passing visit by an uninvolved celebrity god, a deus ex machina from a Roman play; this was the beginning of a new level of commitment to us in the ordinariness of life; God getting to know what it is like to be us and showing us how to be more godly, which is to say more truly human (for scripture tells us that we are created in the image of God).
You may know that the word translated ‘lived among us’ actually means ‘pitched his tent with us’. Some of those who sleep rough around here are to be found in tents. But of course the reference is nuanced, meaning both such tents as we might use and also that portable ‘tabernacle’ in which God dwelt with his people in their Old Testament desert wanderings.
So this is, as I’ve already said, a statement of commitment and involvement, a choice to accept us and be faithful friends to us; to love us; the most godlike and therefore the most perfectly human thing we can do. Love. For
God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them,
as St John wrote elsewhere. God pitching his tent with us is a statement of commitment in a particular way. Fundamentally and most importantly, God does not require us to find him in an esoteric location or a grand building. We do encounter him there – here – because these places help us to get out of our routine selves (and because here we gather in community in response to his command to receive sacramental nourishment). But God is already with us wherever we are. That is what ‘pitching his tent means’: God travels with us, comes to meet us, stays where we stay and goes with us on our way.
And this is also a reminder that Christmas wasn’t originally about the child and the crib. A Christmas festival was unknown to the early church. The celebration of a festival of Christ’s birth wasn’t invented until the 4th century, nor was it the homage of a peaceful disciple. This feast was the initiative of a military leader, the Roman Emperor Constantine. Following his battlefield conversion, Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome; he also decided that Christ’s birth should become a major focus of the Christian year, overwriting existing pagan celebrations. This was part of a larger project by which he radically reinvented Christianity for his own, military, ends. By focusing on the birth of Christ, and then fast-forwarding to the story of his death, Constantine pushed the radical Christ of the early church to the margins of Christianity and replaced him with an infinitely more accommodating religion of the baby and the cross. The bit in the middle – the content, the radical, questioning, humanly engaged life of Christ – was skimmed over.
So this morning, as we celebrate God coming to be with us, here are two things to take home. First, this festival is about love; it’s about God making a commitment to accept us and desire our human flourishing. On the back of that, it is about God also hoping that we will seek him out and draw near to him in faith, taking him up on his offer of divinising our human clay.
Second, it doesn’t stop here: this is the introduction. The story, the real content, is the teaching and action of Jesus communicating the Word of God in human words, which certainly brought him to the cross, but also brought him, and us, to new life at Easter.
If you use Facebook you’ll be familiar with a visual strategy of solidarity people use. They overlay their profile picture with, for example, a filter of French flag in solidarity after the attack on Paris. Compare that to what we heard in Hebrews (1.3)
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
Jesus Christ is more than a coloured-in human; his solidarity with us is more than a well-meaning gesture. And we don’t just read ourselves and each other differently because of his complete identity with us. Today’s gospel also tells us that all scripture, bearing witness to the Word of God in imperfect human words, is to be read through this filter of love and generosity and sacrifice, read with the image of Jesus stamped not just upon it but right through it, like a stick of Brighton rock. And this imprint is found at its most unmediated in the gospels.
Today’s Gospel, and Christmas itself, is an introduction to that truth, signalling to us that God coming among us liberates scripture from the dead letter of the scribes and pharisees and makes it good news. So we mustn’t stop here, at the introductory scene-setting. Beginnings matter. But the destination is so much more important. Ours is Easter.