First of all, I want to welcome everyone here this evening. To our guests and family members, welcome to you. Those of you who have not been here for a long time, welcome back. For those of you who might never have been here before, welcome to you. And to all of those dear faces I see every Sunday when I’m here, welcome to you, too, and thank you for welcoming me into this community.
It’s so good to be with all of you for our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ. So here we are, and what a surprise it was that we started with, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Was anyone expecting that?
Just kidding, of course. I cannot think of a Christmas service I’ve attended since I was a child that didn’t begin with” O Come, All Ye Faithful” and end with “Joy to the World.” And we have to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” somewhere near the beginning, right? So we can get all those glor-or-or-orias in. And somewhere near the end, the church gets very silent and we sing “Silent Night,” and then Joy to the World, and we’re out of here.
And I’ve been thinking about the carols that are our favorites. One favorite of mine is number 82 in our hymnal, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” It has a lovely quiet melody, and it is theologically really rich and poetic and precise in laying out the theology of the Incarnation. And if someday I tried to sub that one in for “Silent Night,” everybody would be like, “What? We got to have ‘all is calm, all is bright,’” or Christmas won’t be complete, right? So we have these carols and we have this gospel, always the nativity story from Luke, which in my mind’s ear I still in the New York accent of the priest of my childhood.
All of these traditions around Christmas are so important to us. We want to celebrate the same way every year. And I think these traditions do serve a purpose. They connect us with our past. They connect us with happy times celebrating with loved ones who are no longer with us. And I’m pretty sure that most of us who are grownups here have those loved ones in our lives who we’re thinking of tonight.
These traditions give us a sense of identity. This is who we are. We are people who do these things on Christmas Eve. And they also strengthen a sense of community because we are people who together do these things on Christmas Eve.
So it’s all about tradition. And tradition can be a good thing. It is a good thing as long as we don’t lose sight of what it is that we are really here to remember.
I’m pretty sure we all realize that the first Christmas probably wasn’t a silent night. If a human infant popped out quietly and immediately fell asleep in heavenly peace and stayed quiet for the rest of the night, indeed, that would be a miracle. But we need to remember that these were real people.
That silence was broken by the cries of a real baby who was born in blood and pain as all human infants are, to parents who loved and protected him. His mother raised her son to speak truth to power in the way that we all try to raise our children to do the right thing. And she watched him die for it.
This is the truth of the Incarnation, which we remember and we honor every time we celebrate the Eucharist, and especially in the prayers that come between the “holy, holy, holy” and the Lord’s Prayer, where we revisit the whole story of our salvation, the whole essential story of Jesus in summary.
What we believe is that God came into the world in the form of a human baby, which is amazing, and grew into a man who taught us what really matters in life, who taught us how to live. Who taught us by example all about total self-giving.
So we believe in a God who truly knows all the joys and sorrows of human life, who has come into this world to be with us in a very special way as we experience those joys and those sorrows. This God knows, through experience, all about the death of the body, and promised us that death will not have the last word.
This is our good news. And the bottom line in all of this is our firm conviction that God is with us now and present through us to the world because we are the body of Christ on earth now.
My family had a tradition. My family had many traditions, actually, and one did not violate those traditions without fear of the wrath of my mother. And we always had a Christmas creche out in the living room, somewhere near the tree, from the time I was a small child and now in my own home.
And I’ve acquired a couple of those creche sets over the years. And for some reason, this year I decided that I would take out the one that we used when I was a kid, which my siblings decided that I should have because I am the one who is professionally religious—so I got the creche.
It seems to have a few extra figures. I really wish I could ask my parents why there are five wise men. But one of my colleagues reminded me that if you look at the nativity story in Matthew, it doesn’t say how many wise men there were. So who knows?
The set is old and it’s not really in very good shape. There are little dings in the characters. And somewhere over the years, the manger got broken. And my dad, bless his heart, mended it with toothpicks. He did a very nice job, I have to say.
And the baby Jesus in this set looks wise beyond his years, but he’s broken. His hands are broken off. We were not allowed to play with this when I was growing up, so I don’t know what happened to his hands. But when I looked at it, I could not help thinking of a prayer which some of you might know it. It’s attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, about how Christ has no hands on Earth now but yours. Our hands are Christ’s hands. Christ has no body now on Earth but ours, no hands but ours to do the good works that he has left us to do.
So the miracle of the incarnation is that God came into our human world, lived and died with us and for us, and is still present here now, not in the form of a statue of a baby—with or without hands—not in the form of a statue lying in a manger, but through the Eucharist we celebrate here tonight and out into the world through all of us.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.