St. John i, verse 14 – And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We have two gospel lessons tonight. They both tell us the same thing, but in two different ways. Our first gospel, from Saint Luke, tells us the familiar story of the birth of Christ. This lesson has the charming parts of the story that we all remember from our childhood and that we see reproduced in a hundred Nativity scenes and Christmas cards each year. This story tells of Mary and Joseph, the inn and the manger, the angels and the shepherds. Our second gospel, taken from Saint John, which we will hear at the end of this evening, is rather different. It too is about the birth of Christ, but it speaks, not in the language of a charming story, but rather in the majestic and weighty words of doctrine and theology: it speaks of eternity and flesh, light and darkness, life and glory, grace and truth. If the first gospel is charming and seemingly simple and humanly approachable, then the second gospel is deep and complex, and no less complex for conveying its weighty message almost entirely in monosyllables.
These two gospels in their different ways teach us the two sides of the Christmas coin, the two points of the Christmas paradox: that God became man; that the Son of God by whom all things were made became a speechless baby; that omnipotence became weak; that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This doctrine of the incarnation, of the enfleshment of God the Son, is the central doctrine of the Christian religion, and upon it all else depends.
For you tonight, and every night and day, the most important question of your life is this: What think ye of Christ? Or in Christmas terms: What meaning does the child of Bethlehem have for you?
I find as I look over past sermons for Christmas Eve that I rather often have quoted Christmas poems and carols in order to illustrate various points. Tonight I would like to consider the different attitudes that people assume towards the Christ-Child by considering a variety of such verses.
I will pass over those verses that concern Frosty and Rudolph. We will leave them to the children. To the very, very young children. I will move directly to more adult possibilities.
My first adult attitude towards Christmas is what we might call the attitude of the polite, regretful agnostic. Thomas Hardy’s rather well-known poem, ‘The Oxen’, is a good illustration of this attitude. You might care to know that a ‘barton’ is a farm-yard and a ‘coomb’ is a hollow in a hillside:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearth side ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! yet, I feel
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
This is a poem of regret. It is the poem of someone who acknowledges the beauty of the Christmas gospel, but who has lost his faith in its truth. I at least think that this is an intellectually respectable attitude towards Christmas which Christians should courteously acknowledge. This, however, is not our view. The final word in our second Christmas gospel, which proclaims the enfleshment of the Word of God, is ‘truth’ — ‘full of grace and truth’. To Thomas Hardy we can only offer polite understanding and say to him, ‘If you sincerely hope that what your “childhood used to know…might be so”, then God in his time will reward your hope with something more.’
A second common adult attitude towards Christmas we might call the sentimental view. I define ‘sentiment’ as feelings or emotion and ‘sentimentality’ as feelings about feelings or emotions about emotions. Love is a sentiment. Being in love with the idea of being in love, as some people are, is sentimentality. Feeling sorrow is a sentiment. Feeling sorry for yourself because you’re in sorrow is sentimentality. The emotions that Christmas brings are good and fine. But being emotional about the idea of Christmas and its associated celebrations is sentimentality.
A largish number of popular Christmas songs illustrate sentimentality of this sort. For instance, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’. I’m sure you can multiply examples of songs, which are not really about Christmas, but about feelings about Christmas. They are not about the Incarnation, but about eggnog and fireplaces and snow and presents and family. Now sentimentality is not the worst of all things. Perhaps some of you are here because of Christmas sentimentality — because being in church on Christmas Eve is part of the Christmas feeling or atmosphere you wish to have. It is not for me to pronounce any final judgement upon such an attitude. I would only say that in terms of our two gospels the sentimental approach to Christmas sticks with the charming story from Saint Luke but does not do justice to the mighty words from Saint John. If the Word of God has indeed been made flesh and dwelt among us, showing us the glory of God the Father, full of grace and truth, then surely the Christmas message should engage our minds as well as our feelings and surely it lays claim to more from us than our passing attention at Christmastide.
A third adult attitude we might call the doctrinal. This is religion for the head, the religion of the Creeds. This attitude is essential for serious Christians at Christmas, and it too we find in many Christmas hymns. You know, people will sing things that they never, ever, ever would say. Can you imagine walking into Wal-Mart and seeing the Nicene Creed plastered to the walls? Of course not. But you can walk into Wal-Mart and hear Bing Crosby singing the second verse of ‘O come, all ye faithful’, which is more or less straight out of the Nicene Creed:
God o-of Go-od, Li-ight o-of Li-ight,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb:
Ver-ry-y God, Begotten not created.
That’s not very good verse, but it’s perfectly sound, orthodox, catholic, Christian doctrine. So too is this couplet from the same hymn:
Word of the Father, / Now in flesh appearing.
And so too this from a carol:
‘Fear not, then,’ said the angel, / ‘Let nothing you affright;
This day is born a Saviour / Of a pure virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in him / From Satan’s power and might.’
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Christmas begins with such Christian proclamations of the doctrines of our Faith: that for us men and for our salvation, God the Son came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; that to free us from Satan and sin Christ became flesh and submitted himself to the course of our world and to obedience even unto the death of the cross.
Along with such doctrines, finally, we come to the fullness of an adult, Christian Christmas. This fourth attitude begins with the doctrines of our salvation, but accepts their application to us personally. It combines sentiment and doctrine, heart and head. We find this full, adult attitude also in many Christmas verses that both proclaim our Christmas faith and also call for some active response to it from us. For instance, consider this:
Child, for us sinners
Poor and in the manger,
We would embrace thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love thee,
Loving us so dearly?
Of course there are people who do not care that Christ died a bitter death for them; who do not love him who them so dearly. But how can we who are here now contemplate such a terrible, ungrateful, loveless possibility? Let us not be so. Let us receive our Saviour in our Christmas communion with love and awe; let us love and receive him who, poor and in the manger, loved us so dearly.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.