Grace Presbyterian Church
December 31, 2017, Christmas 1B
Notes From a World Without Christmas
I remember once, while I was home from college for the weekend, our family received a promotional brochure from a local congregation. I do not remember the affiliation, but it was definitely of a highly evangelical, maybe even of a charismatic type. The headline of the brochure was, so to speak, “Reclaiming First Century Christianity.”
Of course, the church in question wasn’t meeting in homes, and certainly not in Roman-style catacombs; they had a real sanctuary and even one of those gyms (excuse me, “recreation centers”) that churches liked to build back in the 70s and 80s. The church didn’t seem very “first century Christianity” in that respect.
I wonder now what that church would think about reclaiming “first century Christianity” if they had known (which I’m pretty sure they didn’t) that one of the other things first-century Christians didn’t have, besides dedicated sanctuaries and such, was Christmas.
While at least some of the stories of Jesus’s birth were certainly circulating among the members of those gatherings of Christ-followers that were spreading from Palestine across the Mediterranean, the gospels from which we know those stories (Luke and Matthew) were not written down until quite late in the first century. In later years even if there had been an impulse to observe some formal celebration of the Nativity, there was no agreement on the date such a celebration might occur. It was well into the third century before any consensus was achieved on celebrating the event on December 25 (a date which in the Roman Empire was dedicated to the celebration of the Roman god Saturn). And even then, the first known celebration of Christmas, in the city of Rome, was not recorded until the year 336. So for about three hundred years of Christianity, nobody was saying “Merry Christmas” to anybody. Think about that.
Now all that, observing that no official celebration of “Christmas” would have been known to the Christians of that time period doesn’t mean that the Nativity, or the theological truth represented in it, was insignificant to those followers of Christ.
In the reading from Galatians we hear Paul sum up, succinctly and effectively, the nature of Christ’s incarnation – a good fancy seminary word referring to God being born in human flesh. When Paul speaks of God sending a Son “born of a woman,” those few words embrace one of the basic truths of the gospel that nonetheless proved extremely hard to grasp for centuries of the church’s existence.
To speak of Jesus as God, exalted, divine, glorious, resurrected and risen, caused great difficulty for some Christians when confronted with the image of a baby born in a squalid and smelly animal trough being that exalted and glorified Son of God. Over time the church ended up with tormented theological exercises trying to excise such squalidness from the story of Jesus; he wasn’t really human, or his divine nature was completely separate from his human nature, or any number of other such attempts to avoid the icky complications of a fully divine Jesus who was also fully human. Even if the church couldn’t fully explain how “fully human/fully divine” worked, it consistently rejected any attempt to reduce or eliminate Jesus’s humanity.
You’ll also notice the idea of adoption coming up later in that sentence; you might also remember that idea coming up very strongly in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. Here Paul emphatically insists that it is Jesus’s incarnation – “born of a woman” – that makes our adoption as children of God (and also “if a child, then also an heir”) possible. Then, because of that adoption, we are made ready to receive the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which moves and shapes and guides our lives as children of God.
We are perhaps accustomed to the occasions of Holy Week and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunday doing the heavy theological lifting of the faith. We should not neglect the theological significance of the occasion that flew by for us this past week, perhaps buried a little under prolific holiday displays and piled-up presents and enormous holiday meals. That theological significance, bound up in the name “Immanuel” (“God-with-us”), for example, is indeed foundational for much of the theological weight borne by Holy Week and Easter. The child laid in that messy and pungent manger was God. That God in that manger was a human child. As mind-twisting as that combination has proven over the centuries, it is indispensible to our understanding of this Jesus, the one born in a manger, the one crucified on that cross, the one risen from the tomb.
Fully God, fully human.
Fully human, fully God.
This is the indispensible truth of that occasion we celebrated this week, this season, whether anybody is saying “Merry Christmas” or not.
For God born of a woman, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, From the Realms of Glory, #133 O Come, All Ye Faithful, #142 ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, #127 Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (Jesus, the Light of the World)