Sermon for Christmas
Proper B ~ December 24, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
The Word was made flesh…
+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
The Nicene Creed says God was “made human”, but the fourth Gospel says The Word was made flesh…” A subtle difference, but maybe significant. Maybe not, maybe “flesh” is just a figure of speech (synechdoche?) for “human”, but “flesh” is more general, referring to all living matter. I like to think of it as more than a metaphor for humanity because that way it includes all creation. Incarnation means “in flesh”, and this flesh is matter in general, not only the human body. Anyway, “human” means dirt – compost, rotting organic matter. And so we approach the scandalous quality of the Incarnation: to say that God became flesh, or God became human, means God became dirt – or worse – God became something one cannot even name in church!
The scandal is hinted at in the Birth narrative: born in a barn, laid in a manger, surrounded by big animals and strong odors. There may be glory in the sky, but where He actually is there is straw and mud. And all of it – all of this flesh, animal and vegetable as well as human – is the destination of the Incarnate One. God’s first purpose in taking flesh is to start over, to create the universe all over again. The New Creation. In the Beginning was the Word…by Him all things were made…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The new act of Creation begins when the Creator Himself becomes a creature ~ the Word became flesh.
If Christ had been the expected Messiah only, this humility would not necessarily have been appropriate. It still rankles. The Church is always trying to emphasize the celestial glory and downplay the humility. But the real glory is the paradox. Creator become creature, Spirit become flesh, the Almighty become powerless. There may be dazzling, frightening light in the sky, but the real, and more astounding Glory of God is the living human in that manger, a little bundle of need and vulnerability, completely dependent on us poor, mortal humans.
Weakness shall the strong confound…
That is the theme of the Gospel. God’s omnipotence will be displayed in the capacity for infinite suffering, the divine strength in the ability to absorb all of our wickedness, and thereby to free us from it:
By the hands in graveclothes wound,
Adam’s chains shall be unbound…
Our ancient mothers and fathers in the Church thought of this in symbolic terms: God had to deceive the evil one by appearing to be weak, so that He could break down the doors of Hades – the prison of all departed humans – and turn us loose. To get to this prison of the departed, God had to die: to put on our mortality as a kind of disguise, in order to gain entrance to the place of the dead, dissolve the chains of our own disobedience, and to lead us out of our Pharaonic capitivity to death. That was the second great purpose of the Incarnation.
The third was to become like us so that we might become like Him:
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.
What He is, we shall be. He is the Son of God, so shall we be. In rising from the dead in our flesh, the Incarnate Word brought Creation to a new level of glory. The glory that frightened the shepherds will now transfigure the whole material universe, beginning with the human Body that, as on this night, lies in the manger in Bethlehem.
COME, LORD JESUS!