Preached at 10am on Christmas Day, at CSMSG. A Sunday this year, the congregation was considerably larger than usual for Christmas Day in the morning!
Collect: 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.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
One Christmas not long ago, I was talking with one of my college students, who was preparing to be baptized in a few months’ time at the Easter Vigil. He grew up in a completely secular household, no religious experience whatsoever, and naturally he was curious about Christmas. “What’s it all about?” he asked. He already knew about the baby Jesus and the manger, it’s hard to grow up even as an atheist and remain in complete ignorance about things like that. But he wanted to know more. What did it mean? How did a *Christian* keep the feast?
Now you might think that a priest of all people would be ready with an answer for the question “What does Christmas mean?” But I confess, to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I froze. What does Christmas mean? For a priest, you might as well ask, ‘What do you think about the air you’re breathing?’ ‘Well I don’t know.’ It’s something that comes so naturally, that is such an integral, necessary part of daily life, that without conscious effort it’s hard to get the critical distance necessary even to think about it.
I mumbled some kind of answer about the Incarnation, and the plan of salvation, but that Christmas is also more than all those theological things… Somehow I couldn’t communicate the kind of imagination Christmas creates for the Christian believer, the way in which its events and promises seep into every part of our lives, the way they infuse every corner of life and creation with divine splendor and quiet grace, with the conviction that something more is possible, that there is always more than meets the eye; that no matter how dire or seemingly final, there is always new life beginning right here and just around the corner. But I couldn’t get all this out, and continued to play the idiot struggling for words.
Finally I gave up and recommended he just watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special: and if you get nothing else out of this sermon, hear me recommend Charlie Brown as a great introduction to a Christmas imagination!
My student went home and by all accounts had a wonderful first Christmas as a Christian believer. But I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. At risk of indulging in a little self-justification, this morning I want to offer just a few additional thoughts that might help us begin to have a “Christmas imagination” ourselves.
In Advent the central tension of the season was that there are really two Advents: the first Advent of Christ, when he was born today in a manger so many centuries ago; and his second Advent, when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge both the quick and the dead, when every tear shall be wiped from every eye and all shall be made new. In the season of Advent we looked forward to both Advents, and this is the central creative tension of the season.
You might think that this tension gets resolved at Christmas, as our waiting and God’s promise meet in the Christ Child in the manger. And you’d be right, to a point: Christmas resolves Advent’s waiting by the celebration of what is here, what we are faced with, now, in Bethlehem. But this isn’t all. The creative tension continues on another tack. This is indeed the feast of the Nativity of Christ. But there is more than one Nativity which we celebrate here.
There is a reason that by the most ancient Christian tradition there are always three masses celebrating the Lord’s Nativity: one in the evening on Christmas Eve, one late at night running into early Christmas Day, and one today, on Christmas Day in the morning. Three services, with three different sets of readings, and three different collects. Three services because there are really three Nativities. And this is the creative tension of Christmas.
Three nativities. What are they? The first Nativity is from the beginning of eternity, the Son of God eternally begotten from the bosom of the Father: we recall this Nativity every time we say the Creed, or for that matter, every time we sing O Come All Ye Faithful: “God of God, Light from Light eternal…Word of the Father…” “Not made, without whom nothing was made that was made.” This Child born in a manger is more than he seems: he is the ruler of all the starry host before whom angels bow in worship and even the devils bend the knee. This is part of what is so awe-inspiring about Christmas, that such a one as this should come to such a place as this stable, to seek and save such sinners as you and I.
The second Nativity is the one we might know better: Linus on the stage, reciting for Charlie Brown the Angelic chorus to the shepherds:
This is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown: ‘And lo, an angel of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly thee was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.’
This is the Nativity we celebrate with the artwork on so many Christmas cards, with the crèche in church and so many manger scenes on front lawns and village squares around the world. For that matter this is the Nativity we recall every single Sunday as begin our worship with the angels’ Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Here is the beginning of salvation in earnest: a savior, concrete and personal, who comes from God on high not to condemn but to save, through the slow, taxing, charming progress of personal love, through poverty, betrayal, death, and beyond.
Finally, the third Nativity is the one we celebrate this morning, at this third service of Christmas on Christmas Day, in the light of that “new and glorious morn” which the Christmas carols herald. What Nativity is this? The Nativity of our Lord, his birth afresh, in the heart of every Christian: wherein your heart and mine becomes another manger to receive him ourselves. The Savior’s birth is the beginning of new life for the whole world; but it is also the beginning of life for you too, and for me. No matter how rude the stable, no matter how crude the beasts which dwell there, no matter how dark the night of sin and wrong, Christ comes to be born in you and me too, shining the Light from light eternal on all our gloom and dis-ease. This is the greatest mystery of all, one we commemorate this morning especially, but also with every prayer we offer, every forgiveness we grant, every act of mercy made in his Name, and chief of all every time we come to the Eucharist, receiving him afresh under the signs of bread and wine. Christ born in our hearts, the third and greatest Nativity.
Three Nativities, three great celebrations over these holy days. But they are only the beginning. Christ eternally begotten of his Father, Christ born of Mary, Christ in you and me: this is the whole mystery which you and I explore our entire lives long as Christians. This is the mystery in which not just the meaning of Christmas but our own meaning is revealed as well. This is the mystery by which we are brought before the face of God. Let it be to us this year a new beginning, a refreshment, and a challenge: to live as Christmas people all through the year, imaginations alive to the Christ child.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.