Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.
Christus Natus Est. Christ is born.
Ten impossibly small fingers and even smaller toes. Sharp brown eyes, flecked with gold. A tuft of unruly black hair above a solemn infant face. His mother’s complexion, and come adolescence, her cheekbones, too. His whole life people will tell him he has his father’s nose, and he and Joseph will smile to each other, since they are both in on the joke. For Joseph is not his biological father, though he loves Jesus with a father’s love. The joke of Jesus’s birth is well-known to him, as he asked to hear it throughout his childhood: the divine joke that the Messiah of God would enter the world not in wealth and comfort, but in poverty and desperation.
And not just the Messiah, but the very Word of God, as the prologue to John’s Gospel states. “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.”
The Letter to the Hebrews reaches for similar language to describe the unutterable grace of God’s entering creation in a new way, saying, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Both of these verses attempt to communicate the complicated truth of a new aspect of God’s revelation. We call this revelation the “Incarnation,” which is a fancy word for “in the flesh.” And we celebrate the advent of that Incarnation tonight, on this feast of the Nativity, another fancy word which just means “birth.”*
Now, this truth of God’s revelation is complicated not in and of itself, but in how it has been interpreted down through the ages. Throughout the history of the Church and the world, the wrong lesson has often been drawn from the Incarnation. This wrong lesson teaches that maleness is to be elevated because Jesus was male. Or that whiteness is to be elevated because in the dominant narrative of Christianity, Jesus has been presented as white (which is ludicrous, of course.) In both cases, the wrong lesson is drawn because the Church and society have chosen these particular traits of the person of Jesus as elements to be emulated and elevated. This is the wrong lesson. The right lesson to draw from the Incarnation is that God elevated the very concept of particularity.
Here’s what I mean. At the beginning of the sermon, I described the baby Jesus as best as my imagination can. And I can hear in my imagination that shrill shriek of new life startling the placid animals. That cry belonged to Jesus alone. No other child in the history of the world cried with that unique timbre and melody. Indeed, just like any parent, Mary could pick Jesus’ cry out of a host of wailing infants. That cry was particular to him. And so was his particular constellation of traits that made him the unique individual he grew up to be. The uniqueness of the Incarnation does not elevate those specific traits. It elevates the gift of uniqueness itself.
Your uniqueness, my uniqueness, is an expression of God’s creativity. God blessed this gift of uniqueness by coming to us as a particular, unique human being. But society ignores this gift whenever we try to force people into certain pre-packaged, “normative” expressions of humanity. More and more, people are rejecting the concept of “the Normal” in favor of inclusive spectrums of being. These spectrums seek to honor the particularity of all people, rather than create artificial demarcations of normal and abnormal. We agree to honor such particularity in our baptismal covenant when we promise to respect the dignity of all persons and to seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Sadly, such embrace of uniqueness often leads to a backlash of the Normative, where groups whose identity is based on some sort of historically dominant trait attempt to claw back to power. Such trait-based dominance is antithetical to the experience of the Incarnation, for it desires to homogenize what God has expressly made myriad.
Any narrative that seeks to oppress by elevating a particular attribute of a traditionally dominant group has no place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, the Church has often fallen into this kind of sin. Tonight we have the opportunity to recognize this sin and how we have benefited from the privileges it has provided. And in that recognition, repent, and renew our commitment to God’s creativity as expressed by the panoply of human identities which have made our world a more beautiful and wonderful place.
Imagine that baby in the manger and the person Jesus grew into. See Jesus in your mind’s eye. See that living, breathing, vibrant specimen of humanity. See Jesus reach out a hand and take yours. See the dirt beneath Jesus’ fingernails. See the crinkles in the corners of the eyes as Jesus smiles at you. See Jesus, the Word made flesh, the imprint of God’s very being, bless your uniqueness. And in that blessing, invite you to welcome the rich diversity of all people, just as they are, as gifts of God, all marvelously made.
* I cut the following paragraph here because it didn’t work the way I wanted. But here it is because I like it just the same:
“The truth is not complicated by divinity and humanity both being fully present in one individual. That is mysterious, but not complicated. Nor is the truth complicated by the necessarily limited nature of the second person of the Trinity during the Christ’s earthly life, even as the Trinity is whole and undivided always. Another mystery that is. It only becomes complicated if you try to explain it.”
Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash