The Incarnation

SERMON for first Eucharist of Christmas, St James, Colwall, 24 December 2013

Isaiah 9. 2-7; Titus 2. 11-14; Luke 2. 1-14

Christmas is here. Some of you will have had, by now, at least one portrayal of the birth of Jesus, most likely at a school. Most of us have been subjected involuntarily to Christmas carols – often competing with the other noises of the checkout, something entirely expected in the bagging area. And yet others of us have voluntarily and joyfully participated in carol singing in church or elsewhere as part of a pleasurable anticipation of this – the hinge of Advent-Christmas Eve into Christmas Day.

We can all do grumpy old man / grumpy old woman / Christmas is commercialised beyond recognition and so forth, but most of us, thank God, can still be brought up short by the magic of it all. Like John Betjeman in his poem “Christmas” we ask ourselves

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?[1]

Or like Thomas Hardy, we could say

 If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.[2]

Of course, the image of that nativity scene is overlaid with the hopes and excitements of childhood, of the joy of a mid-winter festival when the nights are at their longest, and spring and summer seem so far away. But, in that hinge between Advent-Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, human history is also on its hinges. For the Christian, everything turns on an event that took place over two thousand years ago and yet continues to this day. It is a miracle greater than kneeling oxen, greater even than angel music resounding in the sky.

To put it at its simplest – and here words seem inadequate to make even the simplest statements – we are confronting the most extraordinary miracle. In the Christmas stories we see God – the God who fills the cosmos, in whose creative vision there is an unfolding dance of billion upon billion of galaxies, the light of which has been travelling for several billions of years and has yet to reach whatever limits there may be – that God decided to live on this tiny planet as a human person. To say that does not seem possible is to announce that our human minds are incapable of taking in the enormity of the proposition. That such a God who fills that cosmos and, whatever the word can mean, contains that cosmos should even notice this little planet revolving round its little star in its tiny galaxy, is quite simply astounding. That such a God could not only inhabit a human body, but actually be a body as you I are our bodies, is beyond human comprehension.

And is it true, asks John Betjeman? And he answers, as you may recall,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.[3]

This is the truth that shocks our Muslim cousins in its audacity which, for them, however well-meaning on our part – would be a blasphemy. And to those who have not yet been steeped in Christian worship and Christian thinking, it is baffling in its claim. But for those of us who dare – with varying degrees of confidence – to think that the Christian hope is something more than a set of soothing rituals, there are many life-times of implications. Let me offer you just one such as a Christmas message for you.

When God decides to take on human flesh (the theological term is Incarnation), that is not a one-off or even a one-way union. The Incarnation is for keeps – God and our humanity, our human flesh and blood are joined forever to God. The Orthodox Churches – Greek, Russian, Serbian, Lebanese, Syrian, many more – are very clear about this. They tell is straight. God has taken human flesh; and humans are therefore in the process of taking on God’s divine nature. That is our human destiny – we are becoming divine. We are already more than halfway there because God has become human.  Now live your destiny. What on earth could be more important, what focus for your life could compare with that? Political power? Financial wealth? Personal fame? Great beauty? Come on! Becoming part of God must put anything else in the shade.

God as a human person. Of course, the obvious corollary is this. Every baby born is born with this same divine potential. Every child that comes into the world is therefore worthy of that same regard as the shepherds and the angels celebrated. In a world where babies die of treatable disease, where children are exploited or abused, any neglect of a child is a blasphemy against God. And in a world where one adult can abuse, neglect or exploit another adult there is equally a blasphemy against the God who chose our ordinary human flesh in order to make us divine.

The hinges of human history turn on this central miracle. We mark that turn some two thousand years ago, but, as with the cosmos of which we are such a tiny part, time is not the point. That turn is a process which continues and will continue “to the last syllable of recorded time”[4] . God is with us, God is of us, and we are of God. We are each of us flesh of God’s flesh, loving and beloved.

A happy and blessed Christmas to each of you.

[1]Betjeman, John. “Christmas”, in  Few Late Chrysanthemums. London: John Murray, 1954, p.10

[2]Hardy, Thomas. “The Oxen”, in Samuel Hynes (ed.) Thomas Hardy, Selected Poetry. Oxford: OUP, 1998, p.117

[3]Betjeman ibid

[4]Shakespeare, William. Macbeth Act V, Scene V