It is good to be together this morning!
I love the joyful chaos of Christmas Eve, when we have more kids than usual, and see people we don’t get to see very often during the year, and there is a buzz in the whole building. I love the focus on the holy family and especially the Christ child. I love the story of the manger and the angels and the shepherds who are understandably amazed at the good news they receive and at the child they see. It’s all really wonderful and heart-warming.
But I also love today’s quieter, more reflective service. I love the chance to sit together as a Church family and absorb, as best we can, the good news great joy that the one born on this day just over two thousand years ago was God incarnate come to save us. We hear that a lot, but it bears repeating. God took flesh to live and die as one of us. God!
I think about our two Christmas services as complementary. Christ was fully human and fully divine, two natures in one person. In our two services, we celebrate both natures of the one Christ.
On Christmas Eve, our own humanity is on display, and so is the humanity of the one whose birth we remember. Today, we are more conscious of Christ’s divinity, and of the fact that as we gather in Christ’s name, we are entering into the very presence of God.
Our Gospel reading for this morning is perfect for Christmas Day. No mangers, or shepherds, or babies, or even angels here. It’s all about God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That’s how John introduces us to the eternal Christ, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
And John tells “all things came into being through [this divine Word], and without [the divine Word] not one thing came into being.” Christ, the eternal Son of God, is creator even before Christ is redeemer.
Only after reminding us of creation, and of Christ’s role in creation, does John get to the event we celebrate this morning, and even here John is all about divinity.
Here’s John’s version of the Christmas story—just one line. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The very Word of God, through whom all things were created, became flesh for us. It is hard to wrap our minds around news that good. Incarnation is ultimately a mystery beyond our comprehension.
The proper response to this mystery, which is at the heart of our faith, is awe, wonder, gratitude, and adoration before God in the flesh. That was certainly John’s response. “We have seen his glory,” John says, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
John is talking about what happens on Christmas, but not only on Christmas. I sometimes envy the shepherds who saw the baby Jesus on that very first Christmas Eve. But John reminds us that the good news of great joy was not limited to that day. After all, John wasn’t there either. John probably wasn’t born yet.
But in his own time, John did come to know Jesus, to see in Jesus the Word made flesh, and to recognize Christ’s glory as God’s only Son, full of grace and truth. I doubt John could make sense of incarnation. Who could do that! But John knew that he could see God in Christ. And John could worship.
How about us, two thousand years later? We weren’t present when Jesus was born. We weren’t companions of Jesus during his lifetime. We can’t see Christ’s glory in the same way the shepherds did, and John did.
So, did we just miss out?
If we focus only on Jesus’ humanity, we did miss out. Jesus lived and died two-thousand years ago, and we weren’t there to witness it.
But Jesus was not limited to those thirty or so years. John tells us, darkness could not overcome the light of the divine Word. Death could not be the end of Jesus’ story. Jesus rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. Christ lives still as the Father’s only Son, full of glory, source of grace and truth.
And we can still witness of that glory because, before his ascension, Jesus promised to be with us always (Matt 28:20).
I take Christ’s promise to mean that we shouldn’t think of the incarnation as simply a one-time event. Two thousand years ago, the Word became flesh to live among us. And the divine Word continues to live among us, to live in our hearts, to make our bodies the temple of his presence, to be with us especially when we gather in his name, to be with us most tangibly of all in the sacrament of his body and blood.
We didn’t get to see the human Jesus all those years ago. But we are invited to see the divine Word, which continues to come into our lives and into our world, shining with divine glory, overflowing with grace and truth. And we, too, are invited to respond with awe and reverence and worship.
Much of the time, unfortunately, I don’t have eyes to see Christ. The world around me can look pretty bleak, as if darkness is in the process of overcoming the light.
And then, thanks be to God, a little light shines in the darkness, and I know that Christ is present, that Christ’s incarnation in our world continues, and that I, too, am invited to be a witness to Christ’s glory, like the shepherds, like John, like millions of Christians from then until now.
The challenge is opening my eyes to Christ’s presence, learning to see Christ’s light, getting a little better at witnessing Christ’s continuing incarnation, at understanding that every day can be like Christmas, a celebration of Christ’s presence with us.
It will probably never be easy, not in this lifetime anyway. But it helps to know where to look. And I got some help on that just in the last week.
At our Advent formation program on Christian love, the Dean of the Cathedral led us in a conversation about a passage from the first epistle of John. It reads, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (4:16).
Except in unusual circumstances, we can’t see God exactly, not with our physical eyes, not like the shepherds or the Apostle John could. But we can see our brothers and sisters acting in love. And whenever we see acts of Christian love, we are seeing the God who is love. We are glimpsing divine light shining in our world. We are witnessing incarnation happening.
And, of course, we are called to do more than witness. We are called to be channels of the love and light we sometimes see in others.
First John goes on: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son” to become flesh and live among us. “Beloved,” he continues, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:1-11).
When love happens around us, we glimpse Christ. And when we love, we give others a glimpse of Christ. That’s what Christmas means.
My prayer for us, who are here to celebrate Christ’s birth two thousand years ago, is that we continue to experience God’s love in our lives, and to share God’s love with each other and with our world. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan