Homily for Christmas Eve 2015

The Venerable Grant Rodgers, Rector

I know I would be remiss if I did not say to you at some point this evening:

“The Force be with you,” because we live in a culture that likes its religion with a little popcorn on the side, and maybe a little imagination and science-fiction along with it.  Some people carp a lot about how Christmas has been high-jacked or gone off the rails or become completely secular. My Christmas would not be complete without my yearly watching of the movie adaptation of Dickens’ great story of Ebenezer Scrooge, or reading Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” or O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” — not mention Dr Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Merry Christmas, Mr Bean,” “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” etc.  And frankly, if you can’t find something of the Gospel in Star Wars, you need to go back to Sunday School.

For me, Christmas is not something I own because I am a pastor or even because I am a Christian, and Christ is not some dead relative whose reputation I feel I need to defend.  Christmas is a gift — a gift that is meant to be shared.  After all, in the original story, there was a child in the manger, not a dog. Am I right?   However, when people take the “dog in the manger” approach, especially at Christmas, it never seems to edify anyone, and often goes horribly wrong. Take the Puritans for example.

Once upon a time there were people called Puritans within the Church in England, people deadly serious about their faith, who wanted to do away with anything frivolous or fun or foolish, and as a result nearly succeeded in getting rid of Christmas altogether.  And they did, for a while.  In June 1647, an order of the British parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, and during Christmas Day of 1647, a number of clergy were actually taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach!

God knows what the Puritans thought they were defending, or upholding, but apparently, anything that looked like a party, or like it was even reasonably alive, Puritans seemed to want to kill it.  They were hugely incensed about subversive stuff like Mince pies and Morris dancing (which involves hopping about as though you just stepped on a nail and hitting each other with sticks) – for Puritans this kind of thing was a sign that Satan must be close at hand.

They encouraged business people to keep stores open and carry on as if nothing were happening.  They wanted people out working in the fields on Christmas Day, not partying and spending time at church or with family and friends.  In 1657 the Council of State convinced the mayor and aldermen of London to clamp down on all celebrations in the capital, so much so that a number of people were actually arrested and held for questioning, just for attending church services Christmas Day (!!!)

Life was hard for most people of that era, and often very short.  Christmas represented a brief respite from the general drudgery of it all, but Puritans in their “wisdom” felt that life should be dull and difficult every day of the year.  They even ordered clergy in their preaching to urge people to mourn, not celebrate, on feast days of the Christian calendar – a general demeanour of gloom and doom being in their mind the best way to honour God.

Charles Dickins’ characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge, with his almost compete absence of humanity, and his Protestant work ethic in effect every day of the year, only resentfully allowing Bob Cratchit a day off at Christmas, is rooted in this puritanical hatred of anything that looked like frivolity or fun.  I wonder if they ever stopped to consider what Jesus might have to say about all their repressive ways, or how they dealt with the fact that Jesus himself was accused of being a drunk and a partier.

Wisely, the people charting the course forward for the Anglican Church found a more sensible way, a way that allowed Christmas in particular to be celebrated more broadly, and shall I say more generously.  Puritans, having failed to “purify” the Church of England, sailed off in large numbers to the New World, where they could fully devote themselves to dullness, alleviated by the odd witch hunt.  And of course they banned Christmas in America as well – with much more success.

I don’t want to merely castigate certain Christians, because things are never quite as simple as they appear and frankly, I find that most people, including me, have at least something of the Puritan in them.  However, it was somewhat ironic that in that case it was religious people who almost destroyed Christmas.  So if you want to complain about why commercialism dominates the Christmas season, realize that this is a very old argument, and think of the Puritans, some of the most seriously misguided people ever to think of themselves as ambassadors of Christ.

I think we best promote what Christmas is about by celebrating it joyfully, gratefully and generously without complaining that others are not doing it properly.

For Puritans, happiness, if it existed at all, was something earned, which of course sets up the eternal frustration of the Pharisee attempting to work toward deserving something that can only be given and received as an act of grace (see Romans 10:3), too full of him/herself to receive what only God can give.  Scrooge, after his conversion, or born again experience, Scrooge attempts to chide his newfound happiness by saying, “I don’t deserve to be so happy,” and then, laughing, throws his pen over his shoulder, saying “I can’t help it!”  That is the grace we are celebrating and proclaiming at Christmas!

Despite appearances that suggest people are not taking Christmas seriously enough, we need to be careful not to get pushed into a sectarian mindset, politicizing Christmas and Christianity and demonizing others at a time of year that so clearly speaks to the deep needs and hopes of all humanity, and reminds us of the importance of qualities like kindness and generosity.  At Christmas it would be most inappropriate for Christians in particular to be Scrooge-like, miserly and proprietary about this great festival which was intended as good news for all people.   As Titus said, Christ’s appearing was meant to reveal the goodness and the loving-kindness of God, not judgement and doom.  And really, is there any such thing as a “pure” celebration of Christmas?

For me, it is important not to get stuck in fixed conceptions of Christmas (or other aspects of the Faith).   As Teilhard de Chardin said, “God is always new.”   Johannes (Meister) Eckhart had a similar insight several centuries prior when he wrote: “God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and if we are united to God we become new again.” For me, it is always a good thing to reflect upon what Christmas is, rather than what it used to be, and to consider how best to allow God to become present to us in new ways.

Several weeks ago, in need of a phrase for our Christmas advertising, I was tempted to go with something like “Yes, we’re open!” or maybe “Share, savour, celebrate!” — slogans being used by various stores, but instead I decided on the phrase: “God became what we are that we might be what God is.”

I like it because it is unusual and off the wall enough to sound unorthodox, unconventional, even “heretical” enough that people might be encouraged to think about it.  It expresses the concept that God is to be discovered within our own life, as Mary discovered that she was bearing the Christ in her own body –  that the Incarnation is about this incredible realization of God with us and within us.

The phrase: “God became what we are that we might be what God is,”  may sound New Age or something I made up, but it is actually a proclamation made by a number of those people we call the Church Fathers, those first theologians and spiritual leaders of the Christian movement, and the phrase also echoes what is expressed in scripture.

For example, St Paul in 2Corinthians says that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  The Second Letter of Peter says that we “may become participants in the divine nature.” This concept of divinization or theosis, of becoming what God is, is actually quite common in the writings of the Church Fathers and remains central in the teaching of the Orthodox Church.

St Irenaeus (c. 130-200) writing in the 2nd Century, refers to “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.“[Primary 1]

St Clement of Alexandria, also Second Century (c. 150-215) said: “[T]he Word of God became a man, that we may learn from a human being how we may become God.”[Primary 3]   And: “if one knows himself, he will know God; and knowing God, he will be made like God”[Primary 4]

St Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235) said: “you shall be a companion of the Deity, and a co-heir with Christ  . . . for you have become God … you have been deified, and begotten unto immortality.”[Primary 9]

St Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) wrote: “Christ was God, and then became human, and that to deify us” [Primary 11]. “For Christ was made human that we might be made God”[Primary 13].

St Basil of Caesarea stated that “becoming a god is the highest goal of all” [17] and numerous others, like  Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) Theophilus of Antioch, St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395); St Augustine of Hippo; Maximus the Confessor; Cyril of Alexandria; Gregory of Nazianzus, all said similar things.

Mechtild of Magdeburg put it this way:

“A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
God doesn’t vanish:
The fire brightens.
Each creature God made
must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?”

This is astounding stuff!  This is about much more than whether we have mince meat or Morris dancing at Christmas – this is about who we really are, and what we might become and how we might live more fully as we embrace the possibilities contained in this revelation.  It is about the way we experience God through Christ and it reveals the purpose and nature of our very existence.

In a world in which so many people are considered disposable, reduced to statistics or commodities or seen merely as extensions of others, this is good news indeed — this is essential news from my point of view.  That people can see themselves differently – that we are not just shoppers or taxpayers or consumers – that we are not just mechanisms or organisms or creatures – we are not things! Each person bears the image of God and has the divine within them – is potentially transformative.  C.S. Lewis, speaking on his personal belief in the subject of literal deification, said: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

St Irenaeus also said: “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” That is the gift of Christmas – the gift of life – and with it the permission, the invitation, the encouragement, to be vividly and joyfully alive.   Luke’s Gospel suggests that God delights to share the kingdom, rather than the all-too-common religious notion that God is more like Ebenezer Scrooge, sitting in his counting house, eager to keep the rest of us outside, unwilling to share what he has with us.

We have traditionally imaged God as something external and separate, but the Incarnation proclaims “God with us,” one with us, no longer something external but somehow intrinsic to what is and what we are.  At Christmas we celebrate the great mystery that suggests that the purpose of the universe is revealed in this “kenosis” of God becoming what we are – this self-giving, this giving birth to a new humanity — revealing the proper movement of the universe, its life-principle, even though it seems to fly in the face of reason and logic.   —  part of the great and wonderful mystery which we in the Church call the Incarnation, and that we celebrate as Christmas.

At Christmas we are reminded, and urged to celebrate, the fact that we can come to know something of the purpose of the universe, something of eternity, something of the meaning of life, within our own circumstances.  Christ is the model, the human embodiment of this, and suggests that this new way of relating to God is so that we can be where he is (John 14).

Mary’s conception is a matter of giving birth to what is within us – giving godly purpose, ethical purpose, loving purpose to what is within us – to see our life as inherently sacred – as divine

Far from the traditional view of God being somewhere else, the Incarnation proclaims that the divine emerges from within; the Incarnation proposes that God became one of us – one with us, that we might embrace the process of becoming, even though that becoming may stretch out over millions of years.

The image of God is already in us – we need to explore as to what conditions allow that image to emerge and flourish – e.g. love, affirmation, appreciation, freedom, community, service, compassion, etc.

Anger, hatred, bitterness and resentment toward others are not Christian virtues.  The truly godly thing is to help people see themselves in this new light – the light of the love of God for them and for all.

There are always grinches about at Christmas, who think it’s their duty to put others down or generally to be controlling and obnoxious, who will insist that their own version of things is the definitive one.  They like to think they have power over others, but in reality they don’t . . .

… because the Gospel proclaims another truth: that all who are receptive to the God who becomes one with us, thereby blessing our humanity, themselves become, in a real but mysterious way, children of God. The image of God is already in us, according to the Bible.  John says that what Jesus did was empower people to see themselves in a new way — to realize that in a real way we can share in the divine nature — connected in a vital way.  As many priests say during the preparation at the celebration of the Eucharist: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

So as St John says: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.”

The Christian Gospel, at Christmas especially, is an invitation to embrace our true identity, and our true freedom and joy.  It is full of hope, and good news for all people (even grinches, Scrooges and Puritans) of the goodness and loving-kindness of God.  May God bless us, every one, this Christmas and always.

RHGR+

The Christmas Gospel:

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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.   John 1: 1–18