The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

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. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Small Trees (1487)

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road, pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.
My time is so close.”

 Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ,
taking birth forever.

 –– St. John of the Cross

 

The story we celebrate on Christmas Eve isn’t just about a long-ago wonder. It describes something that is still going on, as the divine “takes birth forever” in mortal flesh and human stories. The infinite God, the Creator of time and space and matter, the Source and Sustainer of all existence, yearns to be born in us, to express the life-giving Word in the vocabulary of human flesh. Your life, my life, our common life as the body of Christ––these are God’s Bethlehem tonight.

In other words, the Nativity isn’t just something we remember. It’s something we do, something we become.  As St. Paul said, “all of us . . . are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” In other words, we are destined to become God-like.

But what does that mean––“God-like?” It doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. Look at Jesus. His life tells you what God-like means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

To let the divine be born in us, then, means simply this: to let our humanity achieve its true fullness by allowing divine Love to have its way with us. A 13th-century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, put it like this:

“When are we like God? I will tell you.
Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly,
to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator
who practices these things ceaselessly.”

O come, let us adore Christ. But not only that. O come, let us imitate Christ. Let God’s life be born in us. And when the divine is born in us, when the divine takes place in us, we will not be the only ones changed by it. Everyone we meet will be changed. And perhaps one day, the whole world will be changed––into “brighter and brighter glory.”

I think it all comes down to this: What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.
It goes out into all the world, to all people, all places, now and forever.
And nothing will ever be the same again.

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Dear reader, thank you for taking the time to consider these posts. You are a writer’s best gift. I wish you a most happy and luminous Christmastide. May your own encounter with the embodied God––whatever form it may take––bless and empower you in the days to come.

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!