A Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, born to us this night in the city of David. Amen.
Tonight marks the turning of the age. Tonight, of all nights, God steps into human history as one of us, and everything changes. The Son of God, the Incarnate Word, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ will live among us. He’ll walk the dusty highways. He’ll be baptized and tempted in the wilderness. He’ll call disciples and teach. He’ll perform wondrous acts, turn water into wine, feed the multitudes, calm the storms, and walk on water. He’ll cast out demons, open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, heal the lepers, and even raise the dead. He’ll enter Jerusalem in triumph and institute the Sacrament of his presence at the Altar for us. He’ll be handed over, tried, bound, and crucified. He’ll descend into hell and rise again victorious. And in his glorious Resurrection, he’ll open to us the way of everlasting life. Alleluia! Amen!
But all of this will come later. Tonight’s miracle is enough: the Divine Word which is with God and is God from the beginning, the Son of God eternally begotten of the Father, through whom all things were made — is born in Bethlehem. Tonight, God becomes one of us.
I learned something this year that many of you probably already knew. I haven’t spent much time around newborns — I was the youngest child without any close cousins; I don’t have any kids of my own, and I didn’t live close by when my friends started having children. But then, at the end of October, I became an uncle. I walked in to the hospital room, my sister in bed, my brother-in-law holding my niece, and she cooed. My heart broke just a little bit, and I felt a strange sense of pride for having contributed absolutely nothing to her existence. It was an amazing scene full of wonder. (Ask me some day and I’ll proudly show you some photographs – but be forewarned, I’ll show you more pictures than you want.)
In less than two months, though, I’ve learned more about newborns than I had in the past thirty years. For starters, babies are delicate! They’re floppy and fragile – so much so that I was actually hesitant to hold her for fear that I might accidentally injure her. They can’t do much on their own, can’t even hold their heads up. Someone else has to dress them, feed them, move them, defend them, and even clean them up after they soil themselves. And yes, my niece is usually an adorable bundle of joy and perfection, but there are the other times when she wails like a (beautiful) banshee or has managed to soil every garment in a three-foot radius. I’ve been surprised at how quickly my sister and brother-in-law have been desensitized to bodily fluids. Newborns scream until they’re hoarse because they have absolutely no other way of communicating; she’s only just now learning to smile when happy. Even with all of our advances in medicine and hygiene, birth and infancy are still very — how can I put this politely? — messy.
Being a newborn is not the most dignified of existences. On the contrary, it’s the most vulnerable a person can be, entirely dependent upon the care of others.
This is not how we picture kings or heroes. This is certainly not how we picture God.
A lot has been made about Christ’s birth – that it was in a manger rather than a palace or a modern hospital, that he was born to working class parents in an occupied land. And certainly, these are important details to note. But even as art engages with these details, it so often sanitizes them. This time of year, our carols, paintings, and nativity sets emphasize the pastoral aspects of Christ’s birth. There’s baby Jesus sitting in a feed troth, barn animals watching on with a look of mild interest. The cattle are lowing, and the little Lord Jesus is a sleep on the hay looking picture-perfect. No crying. No mess. He’s not nursing. Saint Mary looks very awake, at peace, and pain-free.
These cleaned-up Christmas images rob us of the essential truth of this sacred feast: Jesus was truly and fully human. That means crying and bodily functions and fragility. It means that, Mother of God though she may be, Saint Mary probably was not quite so placid as our nativity sets suppose considering she was far from home and living in what was the Judean equivalent of a friend’s garage.
No, in a more accurate manger scene, an exhausted Blessed Mother, half-asleep, nurses a fussy newborn Jesus while Joseph and the shepherds desperately try to find a clean cloth to use as a diaper.
In short, an accurate nativity scene would look like any new parents’ house: chaotic.
These simple truths about human existence are not ground-breaking – but paradoxically, that’s precisely what makes Christmas so profound. It’s such an ordinary event surrounded by extraordinary circumstances.
Consider: the Divine Logos, eternally-begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, the one through whom all things were made — became a newborn human child. Yes, Christ may have been miraculously conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary. But he was born in the usual fashion, fed in the usual fashion, cleaned in the usual fashion. This is miraculous! Because it means that God really is truly one of us. God didn’t merely put on a human costume and appear as a fully-formed adult or posses a human body like a fleshy puppet but rather became uniquely and entirely human.
The Son of God took on all of our human weakness, even taking on the form of the most vulnerable among us, that we might gain salvation and life eternal. In his humanity, he grants us access to his divinity. In his birth, he brings us new birth into life eternal.
Tonight, the one whom Daniel saw coming on the clouds, the one who will walk across the waters, the one who will enter Jerusalem in a messianic parade greeted by shouts of, “Hosanna,” the one who will walk out of his own tomb, the one who will come again in glory on the last day – tonight, he comes to us as a newborn babe.
Tonight, God is with us.
Tonight, God is one of us.
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer holds two services on Christmas Eve: a Service of Lessons and Carols at 4pm and a Mass During the Night at 11pm. In local tradition, the earlier service has different readings, includes young children in its intended audience, and the preacher prepares a different sermon for both services. For the past two years, I’ve preached a sermon originally written by my father over twenty years ago. You can find the story of “Eliezer the Unreliable” (or at least, one of many drafts) at his blog. I still think it’s the best Christmas sermon I’ve ever heard, and I am humbled to take it into the pulpit with me.