Friday, January 1, 2016

The Heart of Christmas

John 1:1-14

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here this morning to celebrate Christmas Day. All around the world bells are ringing, people are gathering in churches like this one, choirs are singing, and families and friends are feasting together. Few days are met with the joy of this day. The Christmas season has been rightly called “the most wonderful time of year.”

As loved ones celebrate together today, not a few will relax in front of the television to enjoy one of the many holiday movies, although at this point they may have had their fill. They have been airing them since mid-November! The plots of these films are usually fairly predictable. Ever since Charles Dickens’ classic story The Christmas Carol, with the unforgettable character Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas stories have followed a similar pattern. There is an individual, perhaps a crass materialist or libertine, a high-powered business woman, a jaded Manhattan lawyer, a Grinch, or a cynic who over the course of the plot discovers the true beauty and meaning of Christmas. Even if they don’t follow quite the same pattern, each of these films promises to unveil the authentic heart of the season. 

There is a great interest in this sort of thing precisely because it is so very easy to allow all the glitz, glitter, and commercialism of the season to become a distraction. Most people, when they really pause for a minute to consider it, believe there is something much more to Christmas than pretty lights, presents, cookies, and eggnog, as lovely as all of those things are.  These films, that seek to get at that deeper meaning, offer something much more noble and substantial in its place. They tell us that Christmas is about generosity, peace, joy, love, and togetherness. All of these are wonderful things and Christmas does indeed mean all of these things, but they are more the effects than the essence. They are the light shed by the lamp, the heat generated from the fire, the crater after the explosion, the ripples after the stone is cast in the water. 

Of course, once in a while, the television shows and movies really do get it right. One of my favorites is The Peanuts’ Christmas Special. At the climax of the story, Charlie Brown, exasperated, cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about!?!” At that point Linus steps to the spotlight and begins to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is more than the celebration of an abstract ideal, it is the proclamation of a definite event in world history that when received as good news and believed, changes everything.

The prologue of John’s Gospel doesn’t tell the Christmas story in the same way that Luke or Matthew does, but it does seek to explain to us the true meaning of Christmas by unveiling the profound mystery at its heart. Its content is fathomless, but I would like to highlight three truths revealed by this great mystery.

The first is that God has a son and that son is the eternal Word. This is a statement that is very shocking for monotheists, those who profess one God, including Jews, and especially Muslims, but it does not mean that we believe in more than one God. Nor does it mean that God produced offspring in the natural way that humans and animals do. God did not produce a Son through intercourse with the Virgin Mary. Jesus is not the progeny of a god and a human being in the way that mythological figures like Hercules and Achilles are. The Son existed long before his mother Mary was even born. He existed before all things. As our Gospel reading says, all things came into existence through him. In fact there was never a time when he did not exist.
John calls him, “the only begotten” not to imply that there was a time when he came into being—he is eternal like the father—but in order to explain his relationship to the Father. He is called the Son, because he is of the same substance as God the Father. The son of a man is a man, the son of a horse is a horse, and the son of God is God. As our creed says, “light from light, true god from true God, begotten not made.” Another way to explain it is to say that Jesus is the Word of the father, the expression of the Father’s heart and mind. Or, as our reading from Hebrews puts it, the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being. John tells us that in the beginning, before time, there was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

The second truth I would like to highlight is the incarnation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us. This is the spectacular event that Christmas proclaims. The eternal Word, the Son of the Father, the one through whom all things were made, divested himself of glory and took the form of his own creation. The God of the universe became a zygote, then a fetus, he dwelt in the womb of a poor woman from a despised people, and finally was born as an infant in the most humiliating of conditions. God became a human being.

The creator of the world became a helpless child. He had to learn to walk, and speak, and eat for himself. It wasn’t as if God just temporarily appeared as a human being, he subjected himself to all the limitations of being a human and ultimately even submitted himself to death. He did it for our sake. He came all that way, descended that low, to declare to us the love of God, to rescue us from sin and death, and to reconcile us to his father.

The third and final truth I want to highlight for you all is that through Christ, we too are made true sons and daughters of God our Father. You remember what we said about Jesus being the only begotten son of God? What man begets is man, what God begets is God, but what man creates is not man, and neither is what God creates God. It is true that God created us in his likeness and adopted us as his own, but that isn’t enough for him. He wants to make us his true offspring, his sons and daughters. In order to do that he needs to give us the same kind of life that he has, eternal life, the life that he shares with his son. Jesus became one of us in order to spread that life to us.
In one of Goethe’s fairy tales, “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily,” he writes about a poor fisherman’s log cabin in which is set a little magic lamp. When the lamp is lit and the whole room illuminated by its light, the logs with which the hut was built, its door, its window, the furniture, and everything else in it is magically transfigured into pure silver. The story illustrates what happens to us when the light of Christ illuminates our soul, by faith. We are changed just as the furniture of that cabin changed from wood to silver, just as Jesus changed the water into wine. We receive new life. We are born again, not naturally but supernaturally.

Saint John writes, “But to all who received him, who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

Brothers and sisters because of Christmas Day we have generosity, peace, joy, love and togetherness, but most of all we have the Son of God, the Word became flesh, who gives to us eternal life. He is the true heart of Christmas! O come let us adore him!