I still say Merry Christmas to you because the celebration of Christmas in the Christian Church (unlike the rest of society) lasts for an entire season, and not just a day. The last vestige of this tradition in our cultural consciousness is the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. That’s how long the liturgical season of Christmas lasts.
Note: In case anyone’s wondering, today is the tenth day of Christmas, wherein the anonymous “true love” gives “ten lords a-leaping,” according to the song.
The Christmas holiday seems to come and go so quickly in its secular, materialistic celebration. Celebrating it as a season (as indeed it was meant to be) is one way that Christians can make the joy last and (hopefully) let the spiritual significance of Christmas sink a little deeper into our souls.
Last Sunday, Rev. Bill Dodge spoke about making Christmas last, not by savoring the nostalgia, but by looking forward to take hold of the promises that God has laid up for us in Christ. Today, I would like to pick up on the heels of where my mentor left off and talk about the reason why Christmas happened in the first place. My hope is that if we can answer this question adequately, we might be in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas and keep it in our hearts all year long.
Why was Jesus born?
There are several theories that propose an answer to this question. First, there are those who think the meaning of Jesus’ life was his message. “He came as a great teacher,” they say, “to show us how to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now, there is certainly a degree of truth in this idea. Jesus was, after all, a great teacher. However, he is hardly the first great teacher to walk the earth. Others have come from all corners of creation to enlighten the world with their wisdom. As a teacher, Jesus is one among many. Furthermore, scholars of comparative religion will tell you that many of the truths he taught were also devised by others. The Golden Rule, for example, is so-named because of how often it appears in the various philosophical and religious traditions of the world. There is nothing unique about Jesus if we relegate the significance of his life to his words alone.
There are others who claim that the meaning of Jesus’ life can be found in his death on the cross. “He came to die,” they say, “His blood paid the price for the sins of the world, so that those who believe in him can go to heaven when they die.” This theory is the one most commonly associated with traditional Christian teaching. However, I find it just as incomplete as the theory that Jesus was nothing more than a great teacher. If we believe the only reason Jesus was born was so that he could die on the cross, then we can conveniently ignore everything that came before and after that event: not only his teaching, healing, confronting, and forgiving, but also his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. If he only came to die, then we can conveniently dispense with reading the remainder of the Bible and rest assured that our sins are forgiven and our eternal destiny secure.
So then, why was Jesus born? Why was it that Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, “became flesh and made his home among us,” as it says in this morning’s gospel?
St. Paul gives us a better answer in this morning’s epistle:
“God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”
Jesus Christ, in the mystery of his Incarnation, “bring[s] all things together in [himself], the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”
This is a central theme of the Christian faith. If we miss it, we are dangerously close to missing the whole point of Christianity itself. Jesus, the Divine Word, crossed the divide between heaven and earth so that he might also bridge the gap between God and humanity. And precisely because he has done this, he also bridges the many other gaps that divide us on earth: the gap between races, genders, social classes, political parties, nations, and even the various denominations and religious traditions. This is why Paul is able to say, in another place, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When people begin to realize our oneness in Christ, all of those petty distinctions lose their meaning. In place of those divisions, we come to see the truth, as Paul did, that:
“Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many… If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.”
It is not too much of stretch to say that this healing of divisions in Christ applies even to the breached relationship between human beings and the earth. We read in Colossians that “[Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in [Christ].” Therefore, Paul has no problem saying to us in today’s epistle that God’s plan is “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” This promise includes all human beings, as well as all things animal, vegetable, and mineral. God’s plan even includes planets, stars, and galaxies. When St. John tells us in his gospel that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life,” the word he uses for world is cosmos; so it’s not just the world of people that Christ came to save, but the entire universe.
Paul calls this work “the ministry of reconciliation” in his second letter to the Corinthians. It begins with God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ and continues as God then invites each and every one of us to participate in the reconciliation of broken relationships through Christ. This, by the way, is why we are rightly able to call ourselves catholic Christians, as we say in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The word catholic means one, and we are indeed one in Christ: having been brought together and reconciled to God, each other, and the cosmos. We form part and parcel of the one Body of Christ, the holy catholic Church.
This ministry of reconciliation matters now more than ever in the world. Human technology has advanced to the point where we have now sent spacecraft to the edge of our solar system. Humans have stood on the moon and snapped photographs of the entire earth at once. Telephones have made it possible to communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the planet. The internet gives our brains instantaneous access to massive amounts of information.
But what have we done with all this knowledge and power? We have used it, not to unite, but divide ourselves even further. We use our rockets to launch missiles at our enemies’ cities. We use our computers to anonymously abuse each other in comment threads. We access only those bits of information that confirm our previously-held opinions and demonize our opponents in the worst-possible light. We use our telephones to stay connected to the latest headlines, but we are utterly disconnected from the person standing next to us in line or even lying next to us in bed. We are lost.
But we are not without hope, for the purpose of Christmas still holds true, two thousand years after it was first revealed to us. St. Paul said it best: “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”
This is what God intends for us, and God will not rest until this ministry of reconciliation is accomplished in us. The reconciliation of broken relationships is the mission of the Church catholic. How do we participate in this mission? In two ways: by receiving the gift of reconciliation from God and by sharing that grace with our neighbors.
First of all, we receive reconciliation from God through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. We listen for the Word of God in the Scriptures, as they are read and preached. We are washed clean and grafted into Christ in baptism. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, we ask the Holy Spirit to bless us and the elements of bread and wine, so that our physical eating and drinking might be a spiritual Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. And then, as we receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ: we are made one with God and one with each other in Christ.
Once we have received God’s grace in Word and Sacrament, we are sent back out to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Our job is to do today what Jesus did when he was on earth: heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, forgive our enemies, open blind eyes, and bring new life to those who are dead inside.
Just as Jesus Christ bridged the gap between heaven and earth in his Incarnation, so we his Church are also called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his work in the world by bridging the infinitely smaller gaps between us and our neighbors. This is the work to which North Church has given itself over the years. Ever since four teenagers snuck off into the woods with stolen hymnals, the members of this congregation have been continually drawn toward the least, the last, the lost, and the loneliest people in our society. We had our beginnings in a time when this country was divided and at war with itself, and ever since then, we have not ceased to reach across the gaps that divide “us” from “them.” In the middle of the last century, we reached out to our neighbors who are hungry and homeless through ministries of service and compassion. In a time of racial division (much like our current time), the pastors of this church took a dangerous and unpopular stand in favor of equality and desegregation. The Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, has preached from this pulpit. We have stood up for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, we have spoken out against violence, and spoken up for expanded public transportation and equal marriage rights for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. For the last 27 years, we have especially dedicated ourselves to fighting the stigma that is heaped upon people who live with mental illness. Every Sunday at worship and every Thursday at the Togetherness Group, Christian hands and hearts reach out across that divide and the demonic spell of isolation is broken, even if only for a moment. This is the work of the Church, the work of Christmas, and it is our work.
St. Paul says, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” Brothers and sisters, that is why Christmas happened; that is the reason for the season. So may we, the people of the Church, keep our hand to that plow and Christmas in our hearts all year and every year from now until the end of the age.