Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3‘He became human so that we might become divine’
IT may well surprise you to know that I have, on occasion, had recourse to the services of a turf accountant, I perhaps ought to explain the situation a little further. At the time I happened to have a friend whose Uncle was a world-famous Horse-Racing Trainer; he would, from time to time, mention a horse and a race and a date to me and I would pop down to the betting shop and put a few pounds on the horse to win, which it invariably did. It was, though without my parents’ knowledge or approval, a way of increasing my pocket money, which was welcome. Yet, due to the quality of the knowledge and information I had received, I was, unlike the rest of the people in the betting shop, not really taking much of a risk.
Thankfully, God isn’t like this. The mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word made Flesh, which we celebrate tonight, tells us above else that God takes risks. In sending the Angel Gabriel to a young unmarried Jewish girl to tell her that she is going to bear God as a human baby, God is taking a risk. Mary could have said ‘No’ instead of which she says ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.’ It is this ‘yes’ which undoes the ‘No’ of Adam and Eve to God; but there was no guarantee that God’s offer would be taken up. Mary risked being shunned by her ﬁancé and by society in general: as a woman bearing a child ‘conceived out of wedlock’. The Incarnation was a source of shame: it was a scandal which put Mary, her unborn child and the Holy Family beyond the pale, outside the conventions of polite society, it broke the rules. It was scandalous, risky, and beyond our expectation or understanding, but it worked.
Likewise, the place where the King of all the Nations was born was not a palace, nor even a private house – people could not or would not give them a place for Mary to give birth to her son. Instead, in a stable, surrounded by animals, with no bed other than a feeding trough ﬁlled with straw, our salvation was wrought – though hardly the site one would expect. The ﬁrst people to whom the birth was announced were shepherds – people on the margins of society, ritually unclean – unable to worship in the Temple, beyond the pale. Yet, as the prophets had envisaged God as the shepherd of His people Israel, caring for them and guarding them, so these simple shepherds, ﬁlled with simple faith, obeying the message of the angel, went, as they were – tired and dirty to worship the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. They like Mary said ‘Yes’ to God – they came as they were and they worshipped. The kingdom of God, as instituted by the birth of Jesus Christ, welcomes the outcast, the sinner – it deﬁes our human expectation, it turns our world around.
People had expected a Messiah from the family of David – it had been foretold by the prophets, Herod was afraid at the thought of being deposed, so afraid in fact that he arranged a mass murder in Bethlehem to try to safeguard his position. The zealous expected a great warrior leader to drive the Romans and Greeks out of Israel. But what God gives his world is something completely different – a weak, tender and vulnerable infant, who needs the love, care, and protection of a human family, to show us what love, simple faith and a trust in the intrinsic goodness of humanity can be. Rather than bringing war, the King of Peace was born, in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, a King who continues to feed us with his life-giving bread – his own Body and Blood, a scandal and yet a great gift, upon which we will feed this Christmas night.
‘And the Word was made ﬂesh and dwelt among us’ God, the Creator of the Universe, becomes a human being, so that we, all of us, might become divine – a profoundly strange and surprising turn of events. But just as the people of Israel had put a tent around the Ark of the Covenant and carried it around until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, so now God would be with his pilgrim people on earth – sharing all of human life, from birth to death, so that we might, through him, share the Divine Life of Love, that of God the Holy Trinity: a relational God who invites humanity to share that relationship, who offers it freely, and to all. The sheer exuberance of such an offer, is almost proﬂigate: it is generous in a way which deﬁes our human expectation and our human understanding. Yet the person of Christ is a gift to the world, a gift which cuts through all our human conventions; a person who can be born, live and die and rise again and reign in a way which is scandalous – so scandalous in fact that people then and now prefer to deny the truth of God and cling to a neater human picture. Better to deny His divinity or His humanity than accept a mysterious reality.
All that God asks of us is that like Our Lady and the Shepherds, we say ‘Yes’ to him, that we accept the mystery, and let the birth of this little child change our lives and our world. For to be a Christian is to accept the risk and invitation of a vulnerable God, and to live out our lives in the light of this relationship, to live our lives in the knowledge of the reality and truth of the love of God. We need to let the light of the world shine through us, that the world may believe. We need to bear witness to Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life. In the face of a world wearied by cynicism, which ﬁnds it easy to mock, we need to let our hearts, our homes and our lives be ﬁlled with the love which Jesus came to share. Amen