O Come Let us Adore Him
Homily delivered for Christmas Day (Year C) 24th December 2020
Live Streamed Ante-Communion 7:00 p.m.
The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, SCP
Trinity Episcopal Church
God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
O Come, All ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O Come ye, come ye, to Bethlehem. Come, and behold him, born the King of angels, O Come, let us adore him.
Have you ever thought about what we are saying when we sing this? Worship a baby, barely born and in diapers? (That’s what “swathing bands” are.) Worship a little creature with a brain that is just beginning to organize sensory input and is still years away from rational thought? How can this be?
The doctrine of the incarnation, of God taking on flesh and becoming a human being, was a scandalous idea from the start. The basic problem is simple—“God” is what we are not. We are contingent; God is sufficient. We are changeable; God is unchanging. We are masses of conflicting urges and desire, most of them selfish and all of them formed by a self that is in no way complete or whole. God is pure being, intention, and love itself. We are incomplete and sick; God is wholeness and health itself. We have failings galore; God is holy perfection itself. We can be pretty benighted, ugly, and false; God is beauty, light and truth. How can these two polar extremes be reconciled, let alone combined?
The early, united Church discussed the issue at length. It gradually recognized that the Love and Power that brought the universe into existence and still sustains it, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth embraced and took on in every way but sin the weakness, limitation, handicaps, and contingency of being human. The early Councils declared that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully Man, 100% Divinity and 100% Human Being. He was not a 50-50 mix, half God and half human being. To those who say that Jesus was merely a man whom God had raised up, the Creed they wrote replies, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,” that is, there never was a time when he was not thus begotten. “…Of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” The carol quotes the Creed when it sings, “God from God, Light from Light Eternal, Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb: Very God, begotten, not created, O Come let us Adore Him.” At the other extreme are those who believe that Christ was fully God and only seemed to be human. The letters of John in the New Testament condemn people who “do not acknowledge that it is in the flesh that Jesus Christ came” (2 John 1:7) and later Gnostics even split the human Jesus from the divine Christ, and pictured the unsuffering, unmoving Christ looking down upon Jesus on the Cross, laughing that people would mistakenly think that he, the Christ, had suffered.
To all of these, the Creed states, “He became incarnate (that is, took on flesh) from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”
“Truly God and truly Human”: we often miss the point, wrongly thinking that somehow God came among us without truly being one of us, only play-acting to be human. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Creeds teaches that this belief is heretical, despite it broad popularity among believers.
God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth shared all our limitations, weaknesses, ignorance, fears, and silly quirks. He was subject to natural evil like the rest of us. The most obvious example is his unjust death by torture at the hands of the Roman Empire. But despite this, he never resisted God. Theologians try to describe the incarnation from God’s viewpoint by saying that God took on flesh and accepted its limits, willing his divinity to be hidden. An early hymn in Philippians (2: 6-8) describes this as Christ “emptying himself.” But we need another image to describe it from a human viewpoint. One is Celtic spirituality’s idea of “thin places,” geographic spots where the veil between the ordinary world and the spirit world seem particularly thin, like the island of Iona, or our Trinity Labyrinth. These are places where the Distant, Shining City does not seem so far away, where it seems easier to commune with God. There are also some people in whom the image of God does not seem so distorted, whose life shows the presence of God shining through. The man Jesus is the ultimate example of a person as a “thin place,” in fact, the thinnest of places.
The incarnation marks a profound continuity and solidarity between God and us and our lives in all their messy, chaotic glory. In Jesus, all we are has been brought intimately close to God. In Jesus, all we are can be made holy as he is. And that is not just us individually, but in community too.
In Jesus, we see that our human limitation and weakness do not have to equal rebellion or resistance against God. In Jesus, we see that God made us, wanting to look upon his creation and call it “very good,” but is not yet finished creating us. Jesus calls, “Let God finish.” Just as Jesus accepted who he was and the tasks God gave him, we must accept who we are—gifts and strengths, disabilities and ugly deficiencies and all. We must accept who others are as well. We must be gentle both on them and ourselves.
Belief in the incarnation, the enfleshment of god, in the baby Jesus is belief in hope, in embracing messiness without rejecting it or pretending it doesn’t exit. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart helps us understand this:
“We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity… But if this does not take place in me, what use is it? It all comes down to this: the eternal birth should take place in me.”
Christmastide is a time of joy. “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” That’s because God is here.
Ambrose of Milan, who taught and converted Augustine of Hippo in the mid fourth century, wrote the great hymn praising the enfleshment of Christ in these words:
O equal to Thy Father, Thou! Gird on thy fleshly mantle now; the weakness of our mortal state with deathless might invigorate.
As God became truly human in Jesus, let us truly accept our own humanity, with all its limitations and failings. And as Jesus accepted the Father's will in all things, let us open ourselves to listen to God and follow where Jesus leads.
O Come, let us adore him. In the Name of God, Amen.