In the book of Genesis, when God created the world he used no special tools. He didn’t have hammers or saws, bulldozers or backhoes; he had no need for these things. From what Genesis tells us, God created everything that exists simply by the words he spoke. God spoke and things came into being. “Let there be light”, God said, and there was light. Therefore, it is no mistake in the prologue to the Gospel of John that John begins with these thoughts, “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 were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made . . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” Jesus is that same Divine Word spoken of at the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the powerful Word of God that brought everything into being. On this day, we celebrate God’s Word becoming flesh. We celebrate the truth that God became human, that the infinite became finite, that the eternal became temporal.
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from his human mother and that the historical Jesus is at once fully God and fully human. This doctrine lies at the center of our Christmas celebrations. Without it, all we do is remember a birthday, a birthday no different than yours or mine. But with it, we celebrate the miraculous truth that the man, born two thousand years ago today, was both God and human being. We celebrate the truth that the God, who created us, became part of his creation.
On the one hand, this is an extremely supernatural event. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God beyond the clouds who spoke to Moses from the top of a mountain, humbled himself to be born as a human child. On the other hand, it is the most concrete of events. Apart from the angels appearing to the shepherds there is no mystical burning bush, or deep baritone voice coming out of the sky. There is no ghostly figure or lightening bolt to trumpet his arrival. Instead, there is the very concrete event of a mother struggling in labor far away from family and home, living in the poorest of conditions, giving birth to a small baby boy.
All of us have heard the Christmas story over and over again since we were very young. Portrayals of Mary, Joseph and the babe in the stable pervade the history of western art and the amount of music associated with this event is immense. We can see the familiar manger scene on display from shopping malls to cathedrals, from Christmas cards to Christmas pageants, and the image of Madonna and child has been depicted countless times in numerous cultures. But as lovely as these scenes are, they tell only part of the story. They tell a piece of the story that happened then, two thousand years ago, they tell of an event in history.
Another piece of the story is that the incarnation of Christ can be part of our present experience, not just our past remembering. I am sure I am like many of you when I say that I have never had an experience of God as a voice in a dream or as a powerful encounter that completely knocks me off my feet like St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. But, I have experienced God and my experience of God has always come through my relationships with other people – a gentle word, a loving touch, a listening ear, a pastoral presence from someone when I needed it the most. These to me are incarnations; they are God working through other people to accomplish his will in the world.
Christmas is a time of year when the word “incarnation” has a powerful meaning. Its power comes not just from the fact that God became incarnate in the man Jesus so long ago, but because I am reminded of all the special people in my life who have been present to me over the years and in whom I discovered the incarnate Christ anew. I think of my grandparents on my mother’s side now gone who were married almost sixty years. I can see them walking up the steps of my family home on Christmas morning hand in hand, bundled against the cold. I can see them in their home preparing Christmas dinner, my grandmother busily cooking and my grandfather methodically carving. From them and through them I learned the power of God’s love to hold people together through the worst that life could be at times. I learned that where love is present, two people could become more together than either of them could ever have become alone.
I think of my grandfather Hollerith, now gone as well, who showed me the power, precision, and beauty of God as creator. In his vast workshop I would often watch him for hours as he moved from room to room in intense concentration. He was a creator of the first order, whether it was inventing some mechanical object or creating the thousands of slides and photographs that chronicled decades of life on the Chesapeake Bay.
I think of my father who died in 1991 whose quiet nature and gentle humility taught me that God’s love is at times most about just being present in another’s life. He was always there, always quietly supporting me by his very presence during every significant moment of my life. When I was a small boy he was the most faithful of friends. As a grown man he was a steadfast companion. Through him I learned about the quiet constant that is God’s love – a love that can always be found in my life if I only take a moment to look for it.
And most of all, I think of my children whose lives remind me daily that only the most loving and forgiving God could give Melissa and me such wonderful gifts. In them I see the helplessness of Christ lying in the manger completely dependent on the love and care of Mary and Joseph. In them I see the eternal hopefulness of God as I ponder the implications of these new human beginnings and the awesome possibilities of their lives and the lives of their children. On this Christmas Day, rejoice not only in celebration of the birth of Christ so many years ago in Bethlehem, but rejoice as well in the lives of those people through whom Christ became incarnate in your own life. Those people whose loving presence in your life revealed God’s presence, whether or not you knew it at the time. For that is one of the deepest meanings of Christianity – as baptized Christians we live in Christ as part of Christ’s body and Christ lives in us. That is what it means every time we take part in this Holy Communion. And it is through us and others like us that Christ’s work continues in the world. In our finest moments we can do nothing more for another human being to be Christ for that person. In the end, that is what it means to be a part of a Christian community. In the end that is why we need each other and this place most of all.
On this Christmas day, we give thanks for the birth of the historical Christ in a little town so many miles away. But we also give thanks for the Christ that is living still and who in our most gracious moments works through this place and us in order to reach others. As one of the opening sentences in the Prayer Book says – “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Welcome Emmanuel – Live in us today. Amen.