Christmas I.  December 29, 2019.  Saint Stephen’s, Athens

Galatians 4:4 – …[W]hen the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

The week following Christmas day contains four other major feast days:  S. Stephen on the 26th, S. John on the 27th, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem on the 28th, and the Circumcision of our Lord on the Octave day, January 1st.  If the First Sunday after Christmas falls on one of these four days, it is not observed but is superseded by the feast.  So in most years today does not exist.  Christmas I is only observed it falls on the 29th, 30th, or 31st of December, as it does this year.

Christmas is described in three of the gospels.  Saint John does not give us the familiar Christmas stories that we associate so strongly with this season.  Instead John explains the meaning of Christmas:  he gives us an interpretation.  John’s is the gospel for Christmas morning, ending mostly in mighty monosyllables:  ‘And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us:  full of grace and truth.’  Those are very, very simple words which proclaim the central mystery of the universe.

Saint Matthew and Saint Luke are the other two gospel versions, and in them we do find the familiar stories of Christmas.  Each of these evangelists has a different perspective, though they agree on the central facts.  They agree about who – who is born and the names of Mary and Joseph.  They agree about where, namely Bethlehem.  They agree about what, namely a birth and miracles and wonders attending the birth, although they describe different miracles and wonders.  And most importantly, they agree about the results of the birth:  namely salvation.  Despite these agreements, the two versions present the facts from very different angles.

Luke’s version is the story we hear on Christmas Eve, beginning with the decree that went out from Caesar Augustus.  Luke tells us about the conception and birth of our Lord almost entirely from Mary’s point of view.  Matthew, the third version, is our gospel today, and it presents the matter almost entirely from Joseph’s point of view.

The result of these multiple versions is to give us a deeper understanding of the matter.  Just as two eyes allow depth perception that perceives more dimensions than a single eye, and just as multiple witnesses allow a clearer understanding of an event than one witness, so multiple gospels deepen our understanding of Christmas.

Less often noticed than the three gospel accounts is today’s epistle, which adds, at least briefly, a fourth notice about our Lord’s birth.  In Galatians 4:4 Saint Paul tells us that ‘when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.’

Paul’s version is brief, and it omits all the charming elements of the familiar Christmas stories.  Paul’s version, like John’s, is a matter less of story than of interpretation of the story.  But Paul’s version also is consistent with the other versions.  Nothing in Matthew, Luke, or John is contradicted by Paul.

Paul’s main point is to tell us that our Lord was born ‘under the law’.  By ‘the law’, Paul mainly means the Jewish law, the law of Moses, the law found in the first five books of the Old Testament.  Paul argues in Galatians and elsewhere that the Jewish law was God’s main tool for educating and preparing the world for salvation from sin and death.  Since men and women always failed to fulfil the Jewish law, God sent his Son to take upon himself that burden.  And we see in the other versions of the story the beginnings of that obedience.  Even as an infant Christ fulfils the Jewish law, as when he is circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple on the fortieth day, as Moses required.

Throughout Matthew’s stories of the birth and infancy of Christ, we see the obedience of Joseph to the law and to God’s angels.  Joseph will do again and again just what ‘the angel of the Lord had bidden him’ (1:24).  In obedience Joseph accepts Maty.  In obedience, Joseph flees from the murderous wrath of Herod, and then later in obedience again returns from Egypt after angelic word of Herod’s death.  Saint Joseph is a kind of renewal of the Old Testament Joseph:  both are dreamers of dreams, both bring their families down into Egypt, and both carry forward God’s plan of salvation by their actions.  In all of these cases, Joseph as the responsible adult, and then Jesus as he comes of age, act under the law, under the direction of God, to show us humble obedience that fulfils the burden we by ourselves can and do not fulfil.  When ‘the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.’

By the way, it was not only the Jewish law that Joseph, Mary, and Christ fulfilled.  There was another law in place at that time, which they also fulfilled, namely the Roman law.  When Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in Luke’s gospel, they did so in obedience to a decree that ‘went out from Caesar Augustus’.  Just as our Lord was ‘made under’ the law of Moses, so he was ‘made under’ the law of Caesar, to whom later as an adult he would render due and appropriate obedience.  We are not saved by the law of Caesar, and the law of God is greater.  But with few exceptions we are called upon to obey that law also.  If doing so was good for our Lord’s blessed Mother and his foster father and for our Lord himself, then you and I also should be law abiding.

In Matthew’s gospel today, the angel tells Saint Joseph that ‘JESUS…shall save his people from their sins.’  In today’s epistle, Saint Paul tells us that ‘in the fulness of time, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law’.  These lessons tell us the same thing, once by a story and once by an interpreter of the story.

Christ saves us from our sins; Christ saves us from ourselves.  We are not happy until we rest in God, but we cannot come to God by the law or by our own merits and works.  We are not happy while sin burdens our consciences, but we cannot absolve ourselves from the sins that so easily beset us.  We need help from above, and that help is from Christ our Saviour, who came with the birth we are now celebrating in this Christmas season.  That is the story which began long ago in the days of the patriarchs and prophets.  That is the story that reached a climax on the first Christmas.  And that is the story which continues today in every choice we make and in every grace bestowed upon us by a merciful and loving God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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