Christmas - Proper 1

December 25, 2000
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 9:2-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 96
Reading 3: 
Titus 2:11-14
Reading 4: 
Luke 2:1-20 or John 1:1-5, 9-14
By Bruce G. Epperly

Every Christmas, we are challenged to hear the gospel story in new and creative ways. Most of us have heard the story so often that it is almost impossible to experience the surprising novelty of the incarnation - the “impossible possibility” that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” and that the “us” where God’s Word dwells is “you” and “me” and our very concrete and challenging lives.

Isaiah proclaims, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deep darkness – on them light has shined.” In the midst of exile and tragedy, God presents the unexpected vision of Shalom – of peace and justice. Isaiah presents an “alternative vision” of reality from the world of death, destruction, and injustice that enveloped the Jewish people and that is still characteristic of our time.

As we reflect on the interplay of light and darkness, we must avoid the possibility of either dualism or racism in our interpretation of scripture. While the Advent passages emphasize the coming of God’s light within a world of darkness, we must also remember that darkness plays an essential role in divine creativity. From the darkness of the earth, new life emerges. Within womb-like darkness, the Christ child gently grows and comes to birth.

As we ponder God’s new birth, we are filled with awe and wonder. God has done marvelous things, not only in the creation and evolution of the universe, but in our own personal healing and transformation. The Psalmist rejoices, “sing unto the Lord a new song, sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” God’s creation and re-creation is not just a human possibility; it is universal in scope and impact. The circle of creation includes all things. Our universe is God-filled. The incarnation is not a divine “rescue mission” or the visitation of an “extraterrestrial” into a world bereft of experience, value, and divinity, but rather the ultimate manifestation of God’s ubiquitous presence.

Titus affirms that the realm of salvation includes all humankind. “Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” God’s aim at wholeness embraces believer and unbeliever alike. Even when we are oblivious of God’s presence, God is still working in our lives, luring us toward wholeness.  This is the radical word of grace, often lost to those who see salvation in dualistic, either/or terms.  For grace to be present anywhere, it must be present and active everywhere. For the incarnation to occur at Bethlehem , it must also be present in our kitchens, job-sites, weddings and birthings, and service to the community. But, it must also – more radically – be the motive force within the big bang, the evolutionary journey, the cells of our bodies, and the non-human world. While Titus focuses, unlike John, solely on the human realm, Titus’ anthropocentrism is an essential corrective to the “totalistic” thinking which not only excludes certain persons from salvation, but also denies them any form of ethical consideration. The current chauvinism, evident in certain fundamentalist forms of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, is grounded in the judgment that certain persons are not only damned for eternity, but diabolical in this life as well. If we, on the other hand, admit that God may be present in the life of our “enemy,” we are inspired to give our opponent moral consideration even when we must do all that is in our power to insure our own national security.

The only appropriate response to the ubiquity of divine grace is a life of wholeness and salvation. As God’s partners in creation, we are challenged  to live in accordance with the divine aim at justice, healing, and transformation. Character matters  - both in the life of persons and in the actions of communities. The incarnation calls us to “glorify God in our bodies.” (I Corinthians 6:12-20)  Here the term “body” embraces the totality of our psychophysical organism and lifestyle.

The Gospel readings need to be held in creative tension with one another. Luke’s reading speaks of the concreteness of the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth is not an other-worldly abstraction, but a fully human person, born at a particular time and place and to particular parents. In contrast to the majestic words of John’s gospel, Luke’s vision of universalism is embedded among the working class, the oppressed, and the impoverished, almost as if to say, “if the incarnation can happen here, it can happen anywhere. If down-and-out shepherds witness the holy birth, why not you?” No one is, in principle, excluded from encountering the Christ-child, except those who refuse to acknowledge Christ’s birth. Still, there is hope for those who turn from Christ, for even those whose spirits have shrunk as a result of misguided priorities – like old Ebenezer Scrooge – can be reborn to new life.

The uniqueness of this holy birth is its very concreteness and earthiness, as Luke notes, but Christ’s uniqueness is also found in its universality. While the impact of each thing radiates across the universe, John sees the birth of the holy child as cosmic in scope. The life of Jesus of Nazareth reflects God’s intention for humankind and the universe. The Word of creation is also the Word made flesh here and now. While the exact nature of the continuity between the Universal Word and the Word made flesh in Jesus will always remain a mystery, God’s intention for all things is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Even the so-called natural order of particle physics, cellular biology, ecological interconnectedness, and evolutionary emergence is fundamentally moral and spiritual in nature. “All things are words of God,” even the supposedly secular and non-conscious. We are part of that spiritual universalism, for “the true light, that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Christmas Eve is a challenge to celebrate the incarnation as global and particular, and universal and concrete. In deep mid-winter, a light shines. In our own wintry spirits, God gives birth to healing possibilities. We can be hopeful because, even in our concrete world of terrorist threats, economic injustice, relational challenges, aging and death, God’s healing light shines and “the darkness did not [and cannot ever] overcome it.”

Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas!

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.