Debra Dean Murphy’s post It’s Not About the Baby reminded me that I, too, wanted to write on this theme, and I wish I could pass it along to everyone preparing a Christmas sermon or service.
For one thing, there’s a pastoral issue. I guarantee you that sitting in church with you at Christmas service is somebody for whom “family at Christmas” brings up difficult connotations: maybe they come from a broken home, or were abused as a child. Maybe they are estranged from their family, for good reason or through no fault of their own. Maybe they wanted to have children but were never able to. Maybe they lost a loved one around Christmas time, this year or in years past. If your sermon or your service is all about the baby, all about family at Christmas, then you have nothing to offer such people.
But there’s a more important reason, a theological one. Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation, a profound theological mystery professed in our creed. The one who is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, the one through whom all things were made,
For us humans, and for our salvation,
he came down from heaven.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became human.
This is the feast when God comes to us, for the sake of our salvation. Note the Creed does not say here “and became a little baby, oh, how sweet”. “Oh, how sweet” is not a response to the Holy Mystery who created all things and now astonishingly comes to live among us. “Oh, how sweet” domesticates God.
Now it’s true that there is also something theologically significant in the vulnerability with which the Holy One comes to us in human form. Absolutely. After all, it’s that vulnerability that will allow us to lynch him.
But the vulnerability is that of the Lamb of God, of our redeemer who will conquer death so that we no more may die. This is the overture of the great drama of the Paschal Mystery that will culminate in Christ’s victory over sin and death. We do not coo at this child — we give him glory, and rejoice in his coming triumph.
I grew up in a largely Francophone town, and the tradition was that just before the beginning of Midnight Mass, after the choir had sung all its other Christmas anthems, we would sing “O Holy Night”, both in French and in English.
Did you know that the English words are not a translation of the French words? The song was written in French first, and later someone commissioned an English-speaking poet to write a different set of words to the same tune. Alas, the result was more influenced by sentiment than by the original text. Here is a translation of the French words:
Midnight, Christians! It is the solemn hour
When the God-human descended toward us
To wipe away original sin
And stop the wrath of his Father.
The whole world trembles in hope
On this night, that will give it the Savior.
People, on your knees!
Await your deliverance!
Here is the Redeemer!
Now that’s a Christmas carol.
Peace be with you, as we enter these final hours of Advent, leading up to the great and saving mystery that we will celebrate on Christmas.