Christmas Day AD 2017

25 December, AD 2017

Proper: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

✠     ✠     ✠

Two of my absolute favorite passages from Scripture are in these Christmas Day readings. The first is the opening verses of St John’s 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.” The other one is in Hebrews 12: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” In both instances they’re talking about Jesus. And what they’re doing is attempting to describe what is ultimately indescribable, or maybe not so much indescribable as incomprehensible. If we could comprehend the mystery of who God is, then we could describe it quite easily. And I’m confident that in the fullness of time, we will comprehend it. For as Jesus once said, “nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Lk 8:17).

Anyway, a big part of our worship on Christmas Day is that we marvel at the great mystery of God becoming man. How it happened is no secret. As we heard yesterday morning, the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy– the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). As for why it happened, we’ve got the rest of the Church year to consider that as we read the appointed Scriptures in the appointed seasons.

So just briefly today I want to touch on some things that were written by St Leo the Great. He’s called “the Great,” not because he was a great preacher and teacher of the faith, which he truly was, but because he was the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, the Patriarch of the Western Church, unanimously elected, and consecrated on the feast of St Michael in the year 440. How often are bishops unanimously elected? The cardinals lock themselves inside the Sistine Chapel, sometimes for days before finally electing a pope. The bishop who ordained me was elected on something like the thirty-fourth ballot. So it says an awful lot about good old Leo that he was unanimously elected.

Last night I quoted something that Leo said in a sermon, which I won’t repeat today. But here’s something else that he wrote in a letter to Flavian, his counterpart in Constantinople, patriarch of the Eastern Church. Leo explains the incarnation, the fact of the Son of God becoming the son of Mary, in this way,

Lowliness was taken by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that was incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer…

You see, it’s just not possible for God to suffer; it’s completely foreign to his nature. Yet he chose to enter into our suffering by becoming one of us, one with us. Thus, Leo says, the Son of God “enters this lowly world. He comes down from the throne of heaven, yet does not separate himself from the Father’s glory…” He doesn’t put his divine nature, his “godness,” aside. He simply adds our humanity to it in a way that the two natures can never be separated. It’s like the difference between a mixture and a compound in chemistry. The ingredients of a mixture can be separated, but not a compound.

Therefore, Leo says in one of his Christmas sermons, quoting today’s gospel,

The Word of God… the Son of God, Who in the beginning was with God, by Whom all things were made, and without Whom was made nothing that was made, became Man, that He might free man from eternal death; bending down to the taking of our lowliness, without diminishing His own Majesty, so that remaining what He was, and taking upon Himself what He was not, He might join the form of a true servant to that form in which He is equal to God the Father.

I hope you’re getting most of this, because it’s wonderful stuff. All this is to say that in being born as one of us, God, the Son of God, has made himself available to us. He’s the Lord of the universe, yet he concealed that infinite glory that he possesses and took the nature of a servant. “He’s the radiance God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature,” as we read in Hebrews, “and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” He’s all that, and now he’s also one of us. He’s fully, 100% human, not instead of, but in addition to being fully, 100% God. Forget about math because it doesn’t mix well with theology. God can’t be quantified. Three Persons in one God is not a mathematical equation; it’s a divine mystery. So even though as God he’s incapable of suffering, he made himself vulnerable for our sake, because he loves us that much.

It “was a bending down in pity,” Leo says, “and not a failure of power.” In stooping to our level he didn’t compromise his divinity in the least. Yet in joining himself to us his creatures, he raised our dignity to a new height. And after finishing his work on earth, after having been crucified and raised from the dead, he returned to the Father’s side taking our humanity with him, including the scars of his crucifixion. What he put on, that we’re celebrating this day, he will never take off, because in putting on our humanity, he has opened the gate of eternity to all humanity.

That’s an awful lot to think about, isn’t it? So I’ll leave it there, and close with Leo’s exhortation at the end of his Christmas sermon. He says,

Let us, therefore, give thanks, dearly Beloved, to God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit; Who, because of the exceeding great love with which He has loved us, has had compassion on us. And even when we were dead in sins, he “made us alive together with Christ” [Eph. 2:5], that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new clay. Let us strip ourselves of the old self with its sinful practices; for being made partakers of the Birth of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh [Col. 3:9]. Acknowledge, O Christian, the dignity that is yours!

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

a.m.d.g.

Ian C. Wetmore+

 

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