Christmas Sermon

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In a sermon a couple weeks ago I mentioned a sentiment expressed by one of our church’s greatest living preachers, the Rev’d Fleming Rutledge, who masterfully called out our mainline discomfort for discussing the truth of Christ’s Second Coming, the primary theme of the season we just concluded, in her recent book Advent: the Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. I’ll not preach yet another Advent sermon this evening, but for those who might have missed it, the upshot is that it’s really a travesty that the four last things traditionally associated with the Advent season–death, judgment, hell, and heaven–have been replaced by some contemporary folks with more obviously cheerful themes (most popularly, joy, hope peace, and love–wonderful sentiments in themselves but not properly Advent-related) by some who fail to see that for the Christian, Christ’s return to judge the world and usher in the Kingdom of God is not an apocalyptic horror-story like you might read in those silly Left Behind novels. It is, rather, profoundly Good News about good finally triumphing over evil and our eternal hope in Christ.

I bring this up because Rutledge so often convicts us comfortable, skeptical, modern Western people into realizing that a tepid acceptance of vague spiritual principles without a robust supernatural faith may at first appeal, but when interrogated cannot produce the sort of hope to which we are called and which God, in his perfect graciousness, has given us as a gift. With regard to Christmas specifically she has this to say, which I just stumbled on in a substack blog a few weeks ago:

I feel sort of sorry for people who are mired in the world of “did this really happen.” I think it’s a way of keeping the claims of scripture upon us at arms length.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, put it even more bluntly when speaking of Christ’s bodily Resurrection, though it could just as easily apply to the doctrine of the Incarnation. He said that if these miracles weren’t a real, historical fact he “should save [himself] a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.”

I do have to take issue a little bit with this, because in the short run not having to explain that one believes in apparently inexplicable things might save one trouble. But in the face of profound loss, of one’s own mortality, or of one’s own inability to be sufficiently morally upright to justify oneself (and all three of these difficulties will beset each of us sooner or later if they haven’t already done) a “demythologized” spirituality just can’t give us the enduring joy, hope, peace, and love (see what I did there) of complete surrender to the crazy, empirically unverifiable claims that scripture and church tradition compel the believer to affirm.

So, my message this evening is really pretty simple. The miraculous conception of Our Lord by the Blessed Virgin, the star leading the first worshipers to the crib, the angel appearing to the shepherds as they watched their flocks by night… it’s all true. And I don’t mean there is some hidden moral or philosophical truth to be found in a story whose historicity we might reject. I mean that we’re dealing with real, historical facts here, and as much as some modern biblical scholars have tried to view the story of scripture through a hermeneutic of suspicion (a lens which assumes that we are dealing with what we must view as fairy stories until they are proved to be otherwise), it is the Christian’s task (indeed it is his or her delight) to say that the burden of proof here lay with the incredulous rather than with the faithful.

The reason this is important, though, is not because the credibility of the Christian faith hinges on every single historical claim to be found in scripture. We needn’t be that sort of fundamentalist. It is important, rather, because viewing the claims of the Christian faith solely with the tools reckoned worthy by scientism and historicism fail to account for God’s being perfectly capable of functioning outside the limits of materialism. If there is a God (and obviously I contend that there is) then his actions needn’t be subject to Occam’s razor. In other words, God can do what he wants, including breaking the rules of nature he established in Creation.

I wrote in my Christmas letter that there exist two key instances in history which may be termed “more than miracles”–namely, the Incarnation and the Resurrection. The Greek Fathers called these mysteries, though here the word is not used in the sense of something which just hasn’t been solved yet, but rather that which once was secret but which has now been revealed and which we are compelled to share. A miracle is a powerful act by which God suspends the ordinary course of things to reveal his glory. These mysteries–God himself coming to dwell among us and his triumphant conquest of death and hell–are something more. They are historical facts along with other of God’s miracles, but they are also what we might call “super-historical” in that they stand as the moments in which the entire course of human events were radically altered.

You see, the reality of this scene (that creche) is more than it at first seems. It seems a sweet and homely image of a simple human event–the birth of a child in less-than-ideal but still joyful situation. It is that, but it is so much more. It’s God’s own perfect love choosing to do something not only that he hadn’t done before, but which would have been reckoned scandalous, even blasphemous, by every religious system which preceded Christianity–for the one by whom all creation came into being to enter that creation, to become subject to its laws, to identify fully with precisely that which he was not. The Creator became a creature in a manner with which neither the most ardent thrall of some pagan god nor the most staid of ancient metaphysician could contend.

Even those who don’t buy that any of this as true, if they’re being honest, would have to admit that if it were true, it would change everything. Recent examples like the Muslim writer Reza Aslan and the sympathetic though agnostic Tom Holland, have in recent years admitted just that. So, again, the one point which must be made is “yes, it is true. All of it.”

And in this great condescension of God himself coming to live among us as one of us, is a greater affirmation even than God’s own approval of his Creation. Where once he said “it is good” but permitted our forebears to break it, today God says, “it is good and I will make it perfect by my presence in it.” This God has done today, and this God continues to do whenever the Christchild is born again in a human heart through Baptism, and this God continues to do by becoming bodily present in the most precious sacrament of the altar, and this he will do at the last when he comes again in glory with the Angels to complete the work of redemption and usher in his eternal reign. For the babe born in a filthy barn is King of all, and to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Karl Barth, perhaps the most important protestant theologian of the Twentieth Century had a peculiar Easter practice, which a couple of my more Barthian friends have taken on for themselves. Every year he would have a cake made with just the word “Yes” in icing on top. An implicit “No” is, as I read one person say punnily, baked into this “Yes”, following Barth’s dialectical approach. God indeed says “No” to Sin and Death, but His final word is one of affirmation–the eternal “Yes” God pronounces to a redeemed humanity in light of Christ’s atoning death and Resurrection.

While this is a new Easter tradition among a certain theologically inclined set, it might even more appropriately be used on either Annunciation Daywhich occurs precisely nine months before Christmas (while Christmas is often referred to as the Feast of the Incarnation, it is more properly termed the “Feast of the Nativity” since the Incarnation proper can be reckoned to begin with the Blessed Virgin’s coming to conceive our Lord); or else it could be just as appropriate on the Fourth Sunday of Advent on which, this year, we liturgically compress nine months into a single day. That is because God’s final, perfect “Yes” to our fallen race begins with Mary’s “Yes” to Gabriel, her willingness to become the Mother of God.

Of course, the Blessed Virgin puts it in a more poetic way than the simple on word affirmation. “Here am I. Let it be unto me according to thy word.” But we might understand in this ornate phrasing the simple word “Yes.” It is this one “Yes” that changed the world.

“Yes” is the word by which God’s will is accomplished in this old world. It is by this word of apparent passivity that men and women are brought into the active work of God’s plan of salvation. It is a word that to utter implies that its speaker must realize his own fallibility and imperfection and God’s own infallibity and perfection. It is a word by which the Christian places her trust in God’s overwhelming providence rather than human ingenuity. It is, in short, the word by which the world is saved.

And it is one particular utterance of the word Yes” by which a seminal and singular event in human history came to take place. St. Luke tells us that an angel appeared to Mary and said “behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name ‘Jesus’. He shall be great , and be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God, shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Thanks be to Gos, Our Lady responded by saying “Yes.”

It was through her free choice that Our Lord was given the chance to live a life of submission himself, a life and death given wholly not to his own will, but that of the Father. This the writer of Hebrews knew well when he wrote that Jesus had said “See, I have come to do your will,” And then explains “[Christ] abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Jesus, too, said “Yes.”

So must we all respond to the call of God. Just so must we—like Mary and like her Son—say “Yes”to God. So must we pray “thy will be done” and mean it. So must we put aside our pride and pettiness that we, like Mary, may say “he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his name.” It is only through humble submission, by saying “let it be, O God”, that we come to greatness and to glory. We cannot magnify ourselves, we can only fool ourselves into thinking we have done. God, however, has promised to “exalt the humble and meek.”

And so, as we prepare once again to celebrate the birth of the Christ child this evening, let us go even unto Bethlehem with a spirit of humility and contrition. Let us like Mary sing the wonders that were done, knowing that salvation is not of our own making, is not wrought by the strength of our own will, but by the will of Him to whom we bow and obey. For we know that God’s power is made most perfect in weakness, and his glory revealed through the humility.

And let us pray.

O Divine redeemer Jesus Christ, prostrate before thy crib, we believe that thou art the God of infinite majesty, even though we see thee there as a helpless babe. Humbly we adore and thank thee for having so humbled thyself for our salvation as to will to be born in a stable. Would that we could show thee that tenderness which thy Virgin Mother had toward thee, and love thee as she loved thee. Would that we could praise thee with the joy of the angels,; that we could kneel before thee with the faith of Saint Joseph; the simplicity of the shepherds. Uniting ourselves with these first worshippers at the crib, we offer thee the homage of our hearts, and we beg that thou wouldest be born spiritually in our souls. And, O Holy Mary, as we here adore thy Divine Son, pray for all little children and for those not yet born, that they may be protected from all harm and danger, and that they may grow in grace and in favour with God and man. All these things we pray in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.