Homily for Christmas ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’

Ατς γρ νηνθρώπησεν, να μες 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

 

Advent IV Year B – Veni Emmanuel

We always make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us. God sent the angel to Mary, not to ask her to do something, but to let something be done. Since God is a better artisan than you, the more you abandon yourself to him, the happier he can make you.
Fulton J. Sheen Seven Words of Jesus & Mary
 
This morning, let me begin by asking you a question. How would you feel if one day a complete stranger turned up on your doorstep and told you something strange and unexpected? Surprised? Confused? Afraid? The fact that you are a teenage girl might well intensify these feelings. When you add to this the fact that the girl will conceive a child outside marriage something for which she could be stoned to death, according to the Law of Moses, the Gospel passage which we have just heard should strike us as odd, and unsettling – this isn’t how God is supposed to work, it isn’t supposed to be like this.
        It reminds us that biblical accounts of the interaction between God and humanity show us that ours is a God who takes risks. Mary could refuse, she could say no, and human history would be profoundly different. But instead, she says “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It is through Mary saying yesto God, through her acceptance and obedience, that her son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, will be born.
As we come towards the end of our Advent journey, it is good to go back to where it all started, back to the account of the Annunciation to remind ourselves what we are celebrating at Christmas – the birth of a child, but not just any child, but rather Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is born not in a royal palace, but in a stable, with straw for a bed, surrounded by livestock. While this scene is familiar, it should still strike us as something strange. It confounds our expectations; it isn’t what we think God would do. The greatest news in human history is a teenage pregnancy – something shameful, disgraceful even, is how God saves us.
In this morning’s Old Testament Reading we see King David concerned that he is living in a house built of fragrant cedar wood while the ark of God stays in a tent. Yet while Israel journeyed to the Promised Land, the ark, God’s presence among His people was in a tabernacle, without a permanent home. It reminds us both of a verse in the Prologue of John’s Gospel: (Jn 1:14) ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ the word translated ‘dwelt’ actually means ‘pitched a tent’ which sees the New Covenant prefigured in the Old. God pitches his tent in the womb of a young girl, so that He might come and save us. He continues to dwell with us in tabernacles and aumbries in our churches, where His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, feed His pilgrim people, like manna in the desert, food for our journey of faith, so that we might become what he is, so that we might have a foretaste of heaven – this is what it is all about.
The key to it all, as St Paul reminds the Church in Rome is ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26) – Mary listens to God, she says ‘yes’, she trusts, she has faith, and through this faith and trust our salvation is brought about.

So, as we prepare to remember the story of God’s love for humanity, may we continue to be struck by its strangeness, and in the confusion may we remember that it is brought about by Mary’s acceptance, and her trust in God. May we like Mary say yes to God, welcome him into our hearts, and show forth his love to the world. 

A thought for the day from William of St Thierry

Truly you alone are the Lord. Your dominion is our salvation, for to serve you is nothing else but to be saved by you!
  O Lord, salvation is your gift and your blessing is upon your people; what else is your salvation but receiving from you the gift of loving you or being loved by you?
  That, Lord, is why you willed that the Son at your right hand, the man whom you made strong for yourself, should be called Jesus, that is to say, Saviour, for he will save his people from their sins, and there is no other in whom there is salvation. He taught us to love him by first loving us, even to death on the cross. By loving us and holding us so dear, he stirred us to love him who had first loved us to the end.
  And this is clearly the reason: you first loved us so that we might love you – not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving you.

Advent III – Rejoice

Lightness of spirit is related to Redemption, for it lifts us out of precarious situations. As soon as a priest goes in for revolutionary tactics in politics he becomes boringly serious. This world is all there is, and therefore he takes political involvements without a grain of salt. One rarely sees a Commisar smile. Only those who are ‘in the world, not of it’ can see events seriously and lightly. Joy is born by straddling two worlds — one the world of politics, the other of grace.
Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 238
As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff – what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell but something far deeper and far richer. We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity, which is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear.
In this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising and the people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation, and yet they are drawn to the Good News. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ’s gift of His Spirit is coming.
 The world, the state, the church all seem to be in a mess. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.
       Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to the oppressed which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal. In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our saviour and our judge, daunting though this may be, in the knowledge and trusts that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.
       We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.
       We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God, giving thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us.
       We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may quieten us with his love.
       The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We can just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us, and that we are to do the same to each other.

Advent II Year B ‘Repent the Kingdom is close at hand’

As Christians we are called to live in between Our Lord’s Resurrection and his coming as our Saviour and our Judge. We know that our redemption has been brought about: by Jesus’ birth and by His Death and Resurrection. This is the greatest news of all human history, and, as Christians, we should be glad, we should live lives full of joy. And yet somehow we don’t – we are tired of waiting, or perhaps we are not convinced of the truth of the message, or perhaps too distracted by the cares and worries of daily life.
I wish that I could say that this doesn’t apply to me, but I’m afraid that it does, I’m not a better Christian, though I long so to be. Thankfully, Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting, and hopefully of putting our own spiritual house in order, to greet our Lord when he comes, as the baby born in Bethlehem and as the Judge of all mankind.
       At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.
It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all haveto do together.
Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.
       John the Baptist, the last of the prophets is the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has an uncomfortable and uncompromising message: Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.
       John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is ours.
 Regardless of what we might think or feel, from a divine perspective things look very different. A thousand years are like a day, just as the Psalmist says. Ours is a God of patience and mercy, who wants all to come to repentance, a God who loves Creation, and who created us in His image – He’s interested in the long game – a God of love and patience.

How then  do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and to the ages of ages.