“In the beginning” begins the Gospel of John, and also the Book of Genesis to which John harkens. In the beginning of all things Christ was there, although he had yet to appear among us in human form. That he does this holy evening, in a cattle stall, in a far-away country, to unmarried teenagers, in a persecuted and occupied population. Christ has always been with us says John, from the beginning, through all human and natural history, partaking of creation, working our redemption, always acting in the long, slow, and undefeatable arc of the ongoing history of our salvation. But tonight we celebrate a new beginning of Christ with us – his incarnation, his enfleshment, if you will, the clothing of the Word with human flesh. He will be born like any of us to a human mother, actually one of the least privileged on earth. He will now walk among us, fully human while fully divine. His emotions will soar and vault and dip and pitch like ours. He will find joy and sorrow. He will lose dear ones to the grave. He will himself be executed. But that’s getting ahead of tonight’s story. Tonight he is a newborn baby – his new beginning is our new beginning. The Word takes human form, and as he does he provides us, each year on this evening, with the invitation and the very chance to become new beings ourselves. Have you ever wanted to start over again? Go back to the beginning? Have you wanted another chance to get it right, this being-human thing? As he is born tonight, he also offers to be born in us tonight – within each of us – and from within us to make us new. One of the Early Church Fathers wrote, “The [Word] of God has become human so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.” In Christ, we get to go back to the beginning to become new people and even a new human race.
For God was not content to leave us in the long night we had made for ourselves. The world into which Jesus was born will sound familiar to us again this year – so much brutality, inhumanity. People killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they live in a certain place or practice a certain religion, because they have the wrong name or nationality. Greed for power or resources makes us kill one another, or force upon them the strong bonds of oppression. Mighty powers subjugate weaker ones. People live with many comforts next to those who struggle to survive, and care nothing for their suffering. This is the world into which Christ was born, as were we. None of this inhumanity was God’s design for us and for our world, but thus have we made it. In infinite love and compassion God sent to us our salvation from every sin, so we could go back to the beginning, starting over as new people. Not content to leave us in the long night we have made for ourselves, God sends the light of the world. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, wrote: “Alleluia! Light burst from untouched womb like a flower on the farther side of death. The world-tree is blossoming. Two Realms become one.” Jesus is that light in the darkness, “the true light which enlightens everyone.” A match is struck in pitch blackness and suddenly we understand where we are, we see the way forward even if only one step at a time, we recognize the faces that go with the voices we heard in the dark. We see objects for what they are. We see ourselves and what has become of us as we stumbled in total blackness.
“Light burst from untouched womb” into all this darkness – a light to illumine all the earth – and who noticed? Some angels, of course. They sang songs to get the attention of a few drowsy shepherds. This really freaked out the poor boys, but the angels reassured them and told them to go to Bethlehem to see the light for themselves, and bless their hearts, they went. Some wise men in the east noticed the star that symbolized the light of a new and awesome king, so they started on their way. Mary and Joseph knew that the light that enlivens everyone was coming into the world, but no one else around them saw that, saw even the possibility. The respectable townspeople of Bethlehem closed their doors in the faces of a teenage couple far from home and while the girl was in labor. It was and is, as I’ve said, a benighted world. But light of the world he is, this unwelcomed baby. He is the life that is the light of all people.
He came, though, not simply to illumine what is around us, to help us see truthfully. God sent him to us that he might be born in us, within our very spirits. This is God’s invitation to us this and every Christmas. We spend these days giving gifts to one another as a kind of imitation of God’s gift to us. That gift is the light of Christ within us. We do not receive all gifts that are offered to us. We say, “No, no, you shouldn’t have” or we take the present but return it to the store on December 26. Let us accept this one. The great gift of Christmas isn’t found under the tree; it is God’s offering of Christ as the light within us. When the baby Jesus grew up he continued to offer that gift of himself, and to nurture the light that he brought in the hearts of all the people around him. Once he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Looking out at a very ordinary assembly of people he said to them, “You are the light of the world!” He was born this night to kindle that flame in us and to set our hearts on fire.
It is in this way that, as John says, Christ gives us the power to become children of God. Children of God! Imagine who and what we could be if we inhabited that fact, if we incarnated, enfleshed, the Christ light burning steadily within us. We could be the light of the world indeed! What people we might become! Like Christ himself we could be “full of grace and truth” – what a gift from the newborn Jesus. I would love to become full of grace and truth – John says that Christ gives us that power. St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “We are the mother of Christ when we carry him in our heart and body by love and a pure and sincere conscience. And we give birth to him through our holy works which ought to shine on others by our example.” my works are holy – moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer. But all our works are holy that shine Christ’s light on another. Those small acts of conscience or faith or love that mean we simply listen to another person who clearly doesn’t have anyone else who will hear her, showing hospitality to whoever is in our path, saying no to the darkness around us and yes to the light within us, refusing to let the Christian religion be used to rationalize violence or discrimination (Christ is the light of all people after all). Refusing to accept that, like ours, any religion endorses violence – to do so only plays into the hands of the greedy scoundrels who exist in every tradition and manipulate it to serve their own selfish ends.Carrying Christ inside us by love and a pure and sincere conscience – this is indeed bearing the light of Christ, letting it be born in us. And holy works? I don’t feel like most of
In this deep night of economic despair, I wonder if we don’t have new opportunities to testify to the light of Christ. Old certainties have been challenged, and securities, and privileges. We have been made vulnerable. Is this not an (albeit unwelcome) reminder of what really counts? Are those things that really matter not love, faith, purpose, and health? These things cannot (or should not) be purchased. They abide whether or not times are fat or lean. I’ve long wondered how much our self-absorption closes us off to the light of Christ. Our economic challenges have the potential to shake us from that self-absorption, but only if we will be bearers of the light. Testifying to the light is centered on seeking the welfare of others; it is the very opposite of self-absorption, and materialism.
I hope and pray that you can say this Christmas Eve that you have everything you need – love, faith, purpose, health – and that if you do not, that you receive what you are lacking as your Christmas gift this year. It will not, as I’ve said, be under your tree. It will come from God and from lovely people who testify to the light. For our own part, let us testify to that light, and so become gifts to other people. Let us claim the power to become children of God, full of grace and truth. John writes that Christ’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it. In a few minutes, we will light candles to testify to Christ’s light in these shortest, darkest days of the year. Let us live that commitment far from the walls of this lovely chapel. Let us be bearers of the light to all people. There is so much inhumanity around us – so much testimony to the underside of human nature. Let us go back to our beginnings tonight, to our holy origins in the love of God, and invite others to start again with us. “Let there be light” – light in you, light in me, light radiating from a little baby born tonight in the humblest of circumstances. God’s light enters our world there – in the pitch black – to radiate throughout the world and set all people free.
Bibliography: Christmas, The Living Pulpit, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1995.