Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Homily

Springfield Cathedral

I can be something of a grouser and complainer during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  At no other time of year do I find my own inner being quite so much at odds with what’s going on in the secular culture. But even I must admit that there is a certain mystique to it all. The “Christmas spirit,” however we think of it, does encourage us to look for the best in one another, which is remarkable precisely because most of the time we tend to see the worst in each other.  Shoppers see inattentive and snippy sales clerks. Sales clerks see obnoxious and demanding shoppers. We see drivers expressing “road rage” on the highways. Con artists find a new sucker every day. Bad cops are paid off to look the other way at crime and office holders sell their power and influence to the highest bidder. 

All this tends to make us pretty cynical about human nature. We end up defining people by their behavior: so-and-so is a drunk, someone else is a philanderer, he has a temper problem, she’s a manipulative bully, and so on. The spirit of Christmas lifts us—even if temporarily—the spirit of Christmas lifts us out of that kind of cynicism and judgmentalism. 

But it is, of course, not merely the “spirit” of Christmas that accomplishes this for us, it is the decisive act of God that lies at the heart of our Christmas celebration. God has done something that forever disarms our cynicism toward human nature. Among the less well-known of C.S. Lewis’ prolific literary output is a trilogy of science fiction novels; unlike the Narnia series, these are written for adults. The first one, Out of the Silent Planet, features a self-effacing language scholar named Ransom, who is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his crony and taken in a spaceship to a planet called Malacandra. The climactic scene of the story is a meeting between Ransom and a mysterious being whose name and title are both “Oyarsa,” and who is the ruler of Malacandra. Oyarsa is curious about Ransom’s home planet—Earth. Earth also once had an Oyarsa, Ransom learns, but the Oyarsa of Earth became “bent” and turned to evil. So Maleldil, the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, quarantined Earth from all other worlds, and confined its bent Oyarsa there, so he couldn’t do any damage elsewhere in the universe. Since then there has been no contact between Malacandra and Earth, but the Malacandrans have heard rumors that Maleldil has been up to some strange and daring activities aimed at fixing and redeeming what had gone wrong there.

Ransom then tells the Oyarsa of Malacandra the Christian story of the Incarnation, how God actually entered human experience, as a human being. Oyarsa is mightily impressed, for of all the worlds and all the races of creatures in the universe, this is the only instance he has ever heard of in which Maleldil has entered one of the worlds which he made and taken the form of one of the species which he created. Oyarsa finally tells Ransom: “You have shown me more wonders than are known in the whole of heaven.”

Yes, human nature is horribly “bent,” and we experience that “bent-ness” every day of our lives. Yet, God has greatly dignified human nature by taking it up into his own divine nature. And that act of love established the means by which that bent and twisted nature of ours can be placed back in the fire, like a blacksmith would do to a damaged horseshoe—placed back in the fire where it can be softened up, and re-fashioned straight and true.

Each celebration of Christmas has the potential to change us. When we experience the “spirit of the season,” we have an opportunity to become more loving, more generous, maybe even more religious. More than once have I heard conversion stories that begin or culminate at the celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Maybe this celebration tonight will be that turning point of conversion for somebody here, that watershed moment of insight that will be looked back on gratefully many years from now.

But that, wonderful as it all is, is just frosting on the cake. The real cause for Christmas rejoicing is that it is the festival of the nativity of God incarnate, the birth of God in human form. The scandal of the Incarnation is that God himself is forever changed by it. He who is by nature pure spirit now has a human face, and the name of that face is Jesus. The human face of God was first revealed to an obscure Jewish couple in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, then to some humble and unsophisticated sheep herders and some strange astrologers and magicians from un-heard of lands to the east. Finally, that human face of God was revealed most completely as Jesus looked down from the cross on his mother and his disciples and his persecutors. In his dying and rising, and in the sacred ritual meal by which we remember that dying and rising—the meal that we celebrate tonight—the human face of God is revealed to you and to me. Eventually, we will all see that face when he returns as a just and righteous, but loving and compassionate, judge.

It is a venerable Christian custom, particularly at this time of year, during the Nicene Creed, to genuflect—go down on one knee—at the words that speak of the Incarnation: “...he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.” I will myself do so tonight, and I invite you to join me in this gesture of adoration and acknowledgement of      the Incarnation, and what a sign it is of the depths of God’s love for our fallen race.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Come, let us adore him.
Amen.

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