Christmas Day

December 25, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 52:7-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 98
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 1:1-12
Reading 4: 
John 1:1-14
By Bruce G. Epperly

Commentary by Bruce Epperly & Anna Rollins

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98

Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

"A Time of Begetting"

A message of surprising birth and of realized hope is the theme of our scriptures, which use the imperative tense to encourage us to form and express a new theology. "Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem," proclaims the prophet Isaiah, "for the Lord has comforted his people, God has redeemed Jerusalem." Magnificent joy swaddles the earth, enveloping even enemies and oppressors, as everyone receives the possibility of new life in God’s realm. What might seem like a fairy tale, as challenging as the existence of Santa Claus to some adults, is fulfilled in God’s promise. In the gift of new life and a new world, "all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God."

"O sing to the Lord a new song," writes the psalmist, evoking the call to form and express with joy and celebration a new understanding, "for God has done marvelous things…make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth." Christmas reminds us of an alternative reality – the world as ruled by love, justice, mercy, for God is with us. Christmas scriptures offer the command to form and express a new identity as children of God within our new understanding of the beautiful depth and ways of God’s constant care for us and all creation.

We have sung the ‘old songs’ too long. Like the bland Christmas carols played in the shopping malls, we have heard the words of fear too often – biological and chemical warfare, racial profiling, terrorism, political posturing – and we have sung too many of our own ‘old songs’ of victimization, enmity, anxiety, and passivity. What is needed is a new song, one whose melody weaves a healing voice through all the earth’s conflicts and fears. "Sing to the Lord a new song," for God is with us. Christmas is a time to claim our new voices and to sing Life.

John Wesley called hymns a "body of practical divinity" – a sung theology. When we sing with others, we come together, active in a shared identity in the faith community. We hear the voices of others around and beyond us, and their words shape our reflections. "Through the practice of singing," writes theologian Don Saliers, "the dispositions and beliefs expressed in the words of the hymns – gratitude, trust, sadness, joy, hope …become knit into…bodies, as integral parts of the theology by which [we] live." Our reflections give birth with our voices, and our voices join together in praise.

"It is not you that sings," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member…may share in its song." Christmas is a time to recall the words to the songs of faith that we know ‘by heart,’ with messages that we understand with our hearts as well as our minds.

We sing of surprising birth, of the actual coming of Jesus Christ, who is always asking us to birth him anew. Christmas reminds us that God constantly seeks us out as intimates and partners in Love’s birth process, and that our efforts to embody Christ as well as our finding of that expression in others is a culmination of the Holy process to form and express Love to the world. We are all "Mothers of God," writes Meister Eckhart, "for God is always needing to be born."

The passages from Hebrews and John are starkly realistic amid their wonderment. Hebrews proclaims a Cosmic Christ, whose love creates and sustains all things, as an antidote to those who saw Jesus simply as an angel, representative of God, but limited in power and scope.

Even routine birthing is somewhat difficult, as it always involves change and a letting go. Labor is the work we do to bring to light what lies hidden in our fertile darkness. Just as ripened fruit is separated from the vine at harvest, birth involves an alteration, as what is delivered, whole and complete, forever shifts in the act to form and express itself. If birth is the culmination of a process to form a new expression of Love in the world, then in its own way, each birth also evokes the divine care that sustains that process to culmination. All birthing sings Life.

Julian of Norwich captures it in verse:

I it am, the Might and the Goodness of the Fatherhood;

I it am, the Wisdom of Motherhood;

I it am, the Light and the Grace that is all blessed Love.

I am that maketh thee to love.

We share with Mary and Joseph in giving birth to the holy when we let new life emerge even in dark time. We find our voices when we sing praise to the One who listens our own songs into being and nurtures their becoming. We sing Life when we shout "yes" to God’s promise even though the future is in doubt.

"Begotten, not made," we proclaim in the ancient creed. God beget Christ, who reflects God’s glory, and we speak of Jesus Christ as the "fruit of the womb." At Christmas the promise of the vine is fulfilled, as the infant Emmanuel is born to Israel in the plainest of circumstances. Christmas reminds us that we each carry the divine, and that God waits in our own times of begetting to be embodied by us in our own simple, quotidian ways.

When Bruce was five, he worried that Christmas would not come, because for the first time in his short life, his family would not be home on Christmas Eve, but instead traveling to spend the holiday with relatives. Passing days anxious and fearful, worried that Santa Claus would not be able to deliver presents, Bruce was almost beside himself on Christmas Eve as he and his mother and brother set off to visit friends while waiting for his father to finish work and collect them for the trip. Bruce remembers his father’s casual remark on their way out of town: "Let’s stop by the house. I forgot something," and recalls arriving at home, to a house brightly lit, tree surrounded by colorful packages, and the joyful surprise of that Christmas. What could have easily been dismissed as inconsequential to an adult was recognized and honored as of great importance to a child. The promise was kept. Love answered hope here, just as we remember each Christmas how God once answered Israel ’s hope in the birth of Christ. "[God] has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel . All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God."

Welcoming home the rising of our hope, God gives birth to Christ within each of us. "I have no doubt," writes Gerald May, "that God is rendered inexpressibly happy in each instant…when one single human heart, in the tiniest little glance, knows its own longing for love, because that longing is God’s own…Thousands of human hearts are glancing Godward. It is happening, and it is the hope of the world."

While the dating of Christmas most likely has little to do with the actual birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, December 25 has much to do with the spirit of Christ. In the Northern hemisphere, the ancients worried as the days grew shorter. They wondered if some year the sun might be swallowed up entirely. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Chronicles of Narnia, how depressing it is when "it is always winter, but never Christmas!" What joy filled the ancients’ hearts when the days grew longer and the sun had once again vanquished the darkness.

John’s Gospel recognizes the darkness that threatens to deaden our spirits. The powers of darkness are obvious, the diabolical and alienating forces of life, appear to hold sway in the headlines and in our households. But, even a tiny candle can quench the darkness. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." That tiny candle, that innocent and vulnerable child, is our hope. Babies are full of possibilities notes Stephanie Paulsell, citing the power of the newborn as symbol. "There is an intimate connection between sacredness and vulnerability." Christmas always reminds us that Christ comes in great vulnerability to be among us.

"Christ came not to dispel darkness," writes Jan Richardson, "but to teach us to dwell with integrity, compassion and love in the midst of ambiguity." God’s light shines in all things. Every situation bears God’s wisdom and guidance, and the chance for us to partner with God to bring about the good that God intends. William Blake writes, "We are put on earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love." Christmas reminds us that we each play a part in bearing Christ to the world.

Like the hologram, described by contemporary physics, the divine imprint is reflected in the part as well as the whole. The unique and particular child, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish teacher, is not merely located in one time or place. "The life was the light of all people," reads John’s gospel. Christ is the incarnation of the loving light that creates, sustains and inspires all things.

The universalism of the Christmas stories is obvious, despite those who would limit God’s revelation to a particular church or faith tradition. Christ is larger than Christianity and this universalism is the source of our hope for us and for the whole planet. In many ways and in many voices throughout history, Christ is embodied. Christ is born even when the name of Jesus is not invoked. But, today, we await Christ’s birth in ourselves. The cosmic imprint is also our deepest reality. Desperate as our lives may seem, light still shines and we can sing a new song.

"Where people sing of God," writes Don Saliers," an embodied theology – a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God – is formed and expressed. Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are. Singing, we embrace our loved ones…we sing as we help one another find the courage to die and as we praise God each Sabbath for creation, liberation and resurrection. Singing we give testimony of our beliefs, we shape communities by rhythm and pitch, and we welcome Mary and Joseph to the stable on Christmas Eve."

Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

In a quiet moment, rest and relax, let your breath flow gently. Remember your most special Christmas. What was so unique about that Christmas? What spiritual or tangible presents did you receive? How did you feel? Now, think about your life today. Imagine your Christmas tree: all the presents have been unwrapped, except for one. What does it look like? How is it decorated? It is a gift from God to you. Take time to open the gift. What do you find inside? How will you enjoy God’s gift to you?

Now look under the tree again. You notice one tiny gift still unopened. How could you have missed it? But, it is a special gift also: it is the gift that God and you are giving to another. Who needs your gift today? What gift shall you make? See yourself presenting that package to the other and commit yourself to sharing God’s gift with that person. Conclude this time of meditation with thanksgiving for God’s gift in your life and the opportunity to share God’s love with another person.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.