A Sermon For Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve 2019
The sermon preached by our Rector, the Reverend Dr Nicholas Peacock, at Midnight Mass:
‘Twas much that we were made like God before,
but that God should be made like us, much more.'
These are words from the end of Holy Sonnet 15, a poem written by the poet, John Donne and published in 1633. These words capture something critical about the essence of Christmas. The very foundation of everything that we celebrate on this holy night finds itself in a radical movement from God towards the world. That baby in a manger in Bethlehem is God reaching out to humanity. That baby is God giving Godself to us. In the person of Jesus, God becomes exactly as we are. God experiences life just as we do, with all its glorious senses, emotions, and feelings. God experiences birth and death like us. What we celebrate at Christmas is so much more than just the story of the miraculous birth of a baby. We celebrate the mysterious moment of the Incarnation – the great coming together of the divine and the human in one person. All of a sudden, God is no longer a divine being who is ‘out there’, far beyond us. God is no longer a distant God, unreachable and unknowable. No. In the person of Jesus, God became flesh, God became one of us. A being with whom we could have a direct relationship. God reached across the whole expanse of time and space, spanning eternity to come to us in that particular moment two thousand years ago. This was beyond momentous. The consequences of that moment led us into a whole new understanding. It was a complete paradigm shift.
What, then, does this tell us about God? Cast your mind back to those probably long distant R.E. lessons. Many of us learn some of the philosophical qualities of a divine being at school. God is described as omniscient – all-knowing, aware of all past, present, and future at any one time. God is described as omnipresent – simply everywhere, always. God is described as omnipotent – all-powerful, not subject to the limits of humankind. God is described as impassible – unchanging, forever the same. These characteristics of God are quite something and many philosophers of religion have tried to argue about how all this might actually be. But, however we describe God, such qualities portray a God who is truly a supreme being. When many of us think of God, it is often of this all-encompassing, superlative figure, greater and more perfect than we could ever truly imagine.
Yet at Christmas, this God, this ultimate, matchless existence, chooses to reveal Godself to us in what certainly appears to be the complete opposite of such a supreme being. God reveals Godself to us in the mortal, fragile frame of a human being. God reveals Godself to us in a speechless new-born child, deeply vulnerable, profoundly needy, utterly dependent on the care and nurture of its earthly parents. God reveals Godself to us in a baby on the very margins of society, born without a known father, reliant on the generosity of others for a bed, forced to flee from Herod’s massacre of innocent children. What a step this is for a supreme being, in whatever way we might choose to describe it. Here is the utter absurdity at the heart of Christmas, the oxymoron at the core of the incarnation. The supreme power of God shown to us in the supreme vulnerability of a new-born baby.
Remember those words of John Donne – ‘twas much that we were made like God before, but that God should be made like us, much more’. The Incarnation is a conscious self-diminishing on the part of God. For God to reveal Godself in such weakness, in such defencelessness is a remarkable step. In this respect, the birth of Jesus is a moment when God gives all that God can possibly give. It is an amazing, selfless, extreme generosity on the part of God. In a sense, it is the ultimate act of love for humanity from God. God pours out all that God is into that moment. Consequently, just as Jesus the baby was vulnerable in the manger, so this is a moment of great vulnerability on the part of God. For God to show Godself in such a way was a risk of monumental proportions. It is certainly not too much of a stretch for us to say that in Jesus, God put all that God is on the line.
At Christmas, we find a God who is prepared to be vulnerable. We find a God who is prepared to take the most astonishing risks. We find a God who is prepared to take all that God is and give it to us.
What does this in turn this tell us about us? As John Donne’s sonnet reminds us, we are made in the image of God. This is one of the guiding principles of faith: that somehow humanity reflects the nature of God. Too often, though, we’ve taken this to mean that we reflect the supreme aspects of God’s being. Too often we see ourselves as supreme in our own world. Our world, its history and its politics are littered with such people. We still today don’t have to look very far at all to find those demagogues with misguided and inflated self-worth who are busy distorting and misleading our world. But this stretches into more widespread society as well. The way in which our society increasingly thinks is one in which the self is placed at the epicentre of our identity. It seems to be the case more and more that what we do for ourselves and how we project ourselves matters far more than anything else. Encouraged by the limited world of social media, we manufacture images of our lives that tell the story we want people to see, a story often several steps from reality. Ultimately, our society exploits our tendency to act primarily out of a sense of self-interest, self-protection, and self-promotion. We are becoming more and more selfish. And this hubris around which we build our lives is so brittle.
Yet the whole point of the Christmas story is to show us this fundamentally different way of seeing God. Not an a supremely all-powerful God, but this supremely generous, self-giving God. This is the God in whose image we are made. This is the God whose qualities we are meant to reflect. But we are falling well short of achieving it. We are so far from reflecting the image of God, the will of God for us. Christmas calls us to gaze on the Christ-child in the manger. Christmas calls us to contemplate this very real being in whom the nature of God and humanity are held in perfect balance, the being in whom God self-consciously diqminished Godself to be with us. We need to do the same. We need self-consciously to diminish ourselves, to step down from our proud fortresses of selfishness, and see the world from the perspective of those who cannot afford to be as self-satisfied as many of us too often are. We need to learn to be generous again. We need to be as God was on that decisive Christmas night, giving all that we are to lead the world and its people into a different way of being. As God reached out so selflessly towards us, so we should reach out equally selflessly to others. What a transformation to our world this would bring.
We are made in the image of God. Let us strive once again to live out the self-giving example that God shows us in God’s gift of Godself – the baby in the manger, the life he went on to lead, and the death and resurrection that fulfilled his promise. I end with some words from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian from last century:
Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honour, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.