St. Ireneaus of Lyon was a student of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was himself a student of St. John the beloved disciple. St. Irenaeus writing in the 2nd century tells us plainly that God became what we are that we might become what he is. This is the real meaning of Christmas. This is why we celebrate tonight. God, in His love for mankind, desired to fix what we had broken, to cleanse what we had soiled, to heal what we had sickened and corrupted. To do these things and to share his life with us and restore us to be as he is, God chose to be born as a human child.
Every year, as we approach Christmas, I find myself distracted by all the hustle and bustle of commercial Christmas, by the decorations that go up around All Saints Day, by the extra traffic and parking difficulties, by trite arrangements of Christmas music played over and over on the radio, by images of shoppers fighting over big-screen TVs and trendy sneakers. Then there are the exuberant displays of holiday lights where the image of our Lord’s Nativity shares space with snowmen, elves and reindeer, as if they were all part of the same picture somehow. I often find myself wishing for a quieter, more intentional, more prayerful time of preparation for Christmas, but it never seems to happen. At a certain level, however, perhaps this is fitting and appropriate, for when we stop to think about that first Christmas in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago, it was definitely not a peaceful time. Many people were confused about what really mattered. Judea was an country occupied by Roman soldiers and civil authorities. Joseph had to take his very pregnant wife on a difficult journey just because the emperor wanted a census taken to insure that everyone would pay their taxes. Everyone had to travel to the home town of his ancestors and we can well imagine the travel nightmare that would make our delays look trivial by comparison. Farmers and bakers and merchants would have all been shouting, trying to sell their wares and make a little profit off the needs of the travelers. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, there was such a crowd that there was no room left in the inn, and so Mary gave birth in a stable. We can be sure that Joseph did the best he could under the circumstances, but these were hardly ideal conditions for any birth. Mary’s child, who was also the Son of God, was born in a stable. God humbled himself to be with us. He became what we are…
There are some, through the ages, who have speculated that all the world was amazed and quiet, just for a moment, at the birth of the Son of God. That everyone and everything stopped for a moment and were quiet. Peace, hope, love, joy and truth and all good things had just entered our world. Most people who did not look or listen or understand may have been uneasy and uncertain for a while, but would have then gone on about their business, back to their familiar ways, not wanting to be upset or challenged. Some, though sought for the child with good intentions. The wise men guided by a star and the simple shepherds directed by the angels came to worship and adore. They found a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, which are in a way reminiscent of a shroud used for burial, and they saw the baby lying in a manger, in a trough used to feed animals, as though this child would become food for those who seek him. From the beginning, it was clear that this holy child was born to save God’s people, and that he would accomplish this salvation, by taking our life fully upon himself, by experiencing rejection and alienation and sorrow and suffering and even death. By doing these things, in love, he would open the door and show us the way to return to Our Father, and then, to strengthen us for the journey, he would give his own Body and Blood to be our food.
We are to become as he is. We will proclaim the true meaning of Christmas in our own lives as we seek to follow Christ, to listen to his teaching, to walk in his ways, to love others as he has loved us. The holy evangelist John tells us that God so loved the world, this world, even with all of its problems, that he gave his only Son so that those who believe in him and follow him might have life, real life. St. Paul, in his epistle to Titus, said that our great God and Savor Jesus Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us and purify us and make us his own people, to serve him with good works. The world never really has understood the meaning of Christmas, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see the elves next to the wise men or people fighting over this year’s fashionable presents. Rather than to complain about those people who don’t get the message, we need to become messengers or advertisements for the message ourselves. We need to open our hearts and minds to God, to be obedient, to turn to God for help, guidance and healing. Then as we gradually, bit by bit, become what he is, we can help to do his work in the world, and bring others to come and see, to worship and adore, to begin to understand something of the love of God.
Our father among the saints, Leo, Pope of Rome in the 5th century, whose writings on the two natures of Christ faithfully guided the church at the council of Chalcedon, encourages us to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, saying “Unto us is born this day a Savior. Therefore let us rejoice. Sadness should find no place among those who keep the birthday of Life. For as of this day – Life came unto us dying creatures, to take away the sting of death, and to bring the bright promise of joy eternal. And no one is excluded in sharing in this our gladness. For all mankind has one and the same cause (for joy), that our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death…. has come to set everyone free. Rejoice, O saint, for you draw nearer to your crown! Rejoice, O sinner, for your Savior offers you pardon! Rejoice, O Jew, for the Messiah has come! Rejoice, O Gentile, for God calls you to life! Now is come the time when the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which has been the field of his victory. Now is come the fulness of time… when the Son of God took upon him the nature of man, that he might reconcile it to its Maker.”
Thanks be to God!