The Coming of Christ
Christmas Day, based on Hebrews 1:1-12 and John 1:1-14
Fr. Benjamin Thomas
On Christmas Day, I wonder what it would be like for a person who was completely new to Christmas to to come into this service and in the spirit of Charlie Brown declare: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus’s replies, “ Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there 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 toward men.
For me, this is the high point of American popular observance of Christmas. Nothing else will ever come close to Linus reciting the King James Bible with a blue blanket in his hand. But if Charlie Brown were here today, he would hear a very different explanation of Christmas. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christmas as something far older than the shepherds who heard the story on that night: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
If we look at the entire book of Hebrews, we learn that the Incarnation had been in the works for a lot longer than nine months. Sacrifices, the burning bush, bread from heaven, the Ten Commandments, the promises to Abraham, and the words of Isaiah—through these and many other revelations, God has been trying for a very long time to use physical things to connect with our fallen race. Finally, he sends his Son, and it is this Son, who John describes in the opening lines of today’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed 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.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Hebrews and John remind us today that the message of the angels and the homely warmth of shepherds gathered around the manger are only pieces of a much larger Christmas story. The manger scene is no less true or important because of this, but we now see Christmas in a much larger context. The shepherds and angels, Mary, Joseph and the baby, are all living icons given by God to challenge us to look through them onto a much larger reality.
The angels that announce the birth of this child are the same angels that stood between Israel and the Egyptians on that fateful day at the Red Sea, and the baby is not merely the son of Mary, he is himself the creator of the universe. When we look at Christmas in this new light, other things start to fall into place. The cheerful greetings of “Merry Christmas” begin to echo angel voices, the lights on the tree remind us of the light that shines in the darkness, and the familiar trappings of Christmas take on an veil of holiness. It is in this way that move beyond the familiar hope that God is somehow rooting for us to the terrifying reality that he has truly become one of us.
This sense of wonder and awe that shines through these readings for Christmas Day was well expressed by T.S. Eliot in a short poem called “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” Written some sixty years ago, the poem seems are remarkably up to date. From Eliot’s opening complaints about the commercialization of Christmas and the general disregard for the season’s true meaning, Eliot’s words seem to be ahead of their time. Despite his reservations, however, Eliot holds out a hope that a lifetime of Christmases will be enough to prepare our souls for our own encounter with Christ. I’ll leave you with his words:
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.