2019 Christmas Sermon
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The year that I was conceived, my father found himself in the middle of a volatile conflict. We had been receiving death threats, our family phone was being tapped, and he faced losing his livelihood for no good reason. To add insult to injury, my mother was struggling with severe neurological symptoms with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Doctors were telling her that she would likely be spending the remainder of her life in a wheelchair. My parents’ hands were full with two infant boys, and when my mother was pregnant with me, I’ve been told that my father was so upset that he didn’t speak to her for a month. Knowing my father, I believe it, though it was likely more out of depression and stress than anger—though I’m sure he felt anger, as well. My mother’s doctors were advising her to have an abortion as the pregnancy posed a risk to her health. Thanks be to God, here I am, born, like all of us, not into Paradise, but into a broken and struggling world.
My family was Christian, and as I grew older and set out on my own, I believe that it was Christmas, more than anything, that kept me a Christian. Though I enjoy philosophy and studying other spiritual traditions, it is Christianity’s deep contemplation of motherhood and birth during this time of year that has hit me on a visceral level, and has kept me. To contemplate the fullness of divinity in the face of a sleeping child—a child who, according to all of the visible, worldly signs, was an accident—this is the audacity of the Christian faith. And, like all of us, this child, too, was born into a deeply broken world—a fact that Christianity suffers no shyness about. But the audacity of the Christian proclamation deepens, for this child who is born this night, is yet God. This child is born this night, and yet he is from before all time.
Despite all worldly appearances, the birth we contemplate tonight is no accident. It is a birth that is pure gift; a freely willed act of love. I did not choose to come into this world, and I certainly did not or would not ever have chosen to be born in New Jersey! But Jesus Christ chose his birth, even his lowly birth. He would gladly choose New Jersey to save his own there. His is not a birth of biological necessity, to perpetuate race or clan or name. Rather, the one who comes to us tonight is truly the sacrament of God’s creative power and his enduring, faithful, unending love for all that he has made. Jesus Christ is the love of God made flesh; the ancient promise that runs throughout the entire biblical story, that promise spoken by the prophets, that elusive redemption which appears here and there in the story of Israel as if in a shadowy vision: Jesus is this fulfilled. Indeed, Jesus Christ is the Seventh Day, the day when all of creation comes to its most splendid culmination; the day of rest and fulfillment; the day of perfection and peace. The little child of the Virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a cowshed, and yet contemplating the bliss of God’s boundless, eternal life. This is the meaning of life. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons famously wrote, “the glory of God is man, fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”1Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7. To behold the vision of the glory of God, this is why we live; this is what we live for. Tonight, we see it in the face of the child Jesus.
And what of the swaddling clothes in which this child is enfolded? They are not only the clothes of a peasant—peasant women swaddled their babies—but they are also the infant’s burial shroud. You see, this infant has freely chosen to be born into this world, this world where life, it seems, only moves towards death; where death, it seems, has the final word, without variance. This is the child who is given to us—who gives himself to us—who is divine and yet strips himself of his divinity; who is born to die and to die for us, that, dying, he might fill even death with the life that cannot die, the life that never fades, the life that was, and is, and is to come from all eternity, world without end. This is the life of God, which swallows up the grave and sets the captives free. Here, in the heart of the Christmas mystery, we find the Paschal, Easter mystery: salvation for those who are united in love to Jesus.
Though our own births may seem a little less grand than the one we contemplate tonight, yet still our lives can reflect the truth that this birth reveals. Our lives, too, can be lived as an offering; an offering freely chosen, freely given in the very same love of God that we receive at Christmastime. May we receive this love tonight and always, and may we in gratitude and the same self-emptying spirit that Jesus Christ has shown us, humbly and meekly entrust ourselves to the mercy of God and find there the joy of sacrifice, to be an offering to a suffering world. We begin this now, in this evening’s liturgy, by offering ourselves to the One whose birth we celebrate tonight, Jesus Christ, our Lord. To him be honor, glory, and thanksgiving, unto all ages of ages. Amen.
Come Pray With Us
We invite you to practice the choice of love here at Mons Nubifer Sanctus, a Christian spiritual retreat center focused on one-on-one and small group formation in the Christian spiritual life. Join a silent retreat and prepare to receive your Lord through a deep practice of contemplative prayer.
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|1.||￪||Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7.|