Christmas – True & humble

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

 What a year this has been in politics and in the media…it’s been a year full of surprises about the world we live in.

  • On the political front, there have been the surprises of Brexit and of American politics. Never have we seen such strongly held oppositions on so many issues – with people claiming the high moral ground on both sides and condemning the opposition with denigrating insults.  Traditional oppositions breaking down, new divisions arising.  It all seems in turmoil – lots of self-righteousness on all sides, a lack of humility, a poisoned public discourse.  We wonder what will happen in European elections in the coming year.
  • There is a heightened concern about what is really true in statements made by politicians and the media? Who is speaking the truth?  And there is a rise in fabricated news stories put out through social media and in mainstream media, with a deliberate attempt to confuse or turn public opinion, even if only until the desired result is reached.  This is not something new, but potentially more destructive given the way news can spread so quickly.  Oxford Dictionary has added to the lexicon its word of the year for 2016, it is, “post-truth”, this new era we’ve entered into.
  • And we have lived through a year with Islamic extremist violence happening on European soil, closer and closer to home – we just wonder where it will happen next.

Into the divisions of society based on gender, race, orientation, political or otherwise; into the confusions about what is true; and into a world where we seem to be more threatened with violence, comes to us a universal figure, a great Light, the Prince of Peace… unto us a child is born.

1 A Universal Figure

The claims of Isaiah, St Paul and St John in our readings today are that this infant that has been born in Bethlehem of Judea is more than just a Saviour for those who follow him, but that he has a universal claim on all humanity and on creation itself, because of who he is.

Writing seven centuries before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah [9:2-7] says that:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, [so far so good, we are always on the lookout for a wise person, but then] his name shall be called…Almighty God, the Everlasting Father. 

What? the child shall be called God?  For a Jew, blasphemy, an extraordinary claim!  And Isaiah says,

Of the increase of his government… there will be no end… to establish it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.

Human beings don’t rule forevermore – the child is human but clearly also immortal.  This is a claim, lacking in all humility…  if it is not true.  But if it is true, then this child is everything we are looking for.

St Paul and St John, both met Jesus, and both agree that Jesus is that child prophesied by Isaiah.

The creation of the angels on the first day, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, 12th century

St Paul was a devout Jew from his birth, studied in the tradition of the Pharisees, and rose quickly within their ranks, but then he had a powerful conversion when Jesus confronted him.  But he didn’t write these exalted words we heard today right away, he began to preach and then we hear nothing of him for 14 years in Antioch, until he began his missionary journeys.  Only about 30 years after his conversion did he write [Hebrews 1:1-12] that Jesus is…

The heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (!)…He is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact image of his nature…much superior to angels.  (in the hierarchy of “being”, the only thing higher than angels is God)  He goes on to claim that this Son, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning…which is to say, that he is Lady Wisdom from the Old Testament [Prov 3:19; 8], that is, God of God.  Does this claim lack humility? only if it is not true.

St John was also a Jew, who followed Jesus for three years, but apparently didn’t begin to preach until over thirty years (about 65 AD) after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and, he didn’t write this Gospel [St John 1:1-14] until he was in his 90’s, after 60 years of reflection on who this Jesus is.  He says,

The Word was Godall things were made through HimIn Him was life…He is the true light which gives light to everyone…  And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…  Again, extraordinary things for a devout Jew to claim about a man.

If Jesus is who these biblical witnesses think he is, and who Jesus himself said he is, then he does have a universal claim on us, beyond our particular identities of race, class or gender (or in whatever other way we try to distinguish ourselves) – he is for us all and it is through him that we have and discover our true humanity.  St Paul will say this very thing – as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Our particular identities and our differences are not what primarily define us, but our new common identity and humanity in Christ.  Is this not a relief?

Paul and John write of Him whom they believe all people need to know and love for their salvation.  Of course, one could lack humility in the way one presents the gospel, but to declare this message itself is not to lack humility, if it is true.

2 The Great Light (Truth)

Some think the Christian faith just one option of many that will lead us home.

Not according to St John, who says that it is Jesus who will lead us into all truth because He is God: the side roads, the distractions, the partial truths or the complete distortions of other paths can be avoided if we put Jesus before our eyes and hold Him there.

The Light of the world, William Holman Hunt, 1853-54

Of course being a Christian does not mean we cannot fall for a distorted vision of Christ, but we are helped by keeping our eyes on the whole tradition, 2000 years of the Church’s life, continually being open to self-critique.

But how does that work?  How does Christ change us and lead us home?  It’s not just about implanting the right ideas into our minds as if the right knowledge itself will save us, but rather, that in putting Jesus before us, he draws out from us, what we know deep down in our hearts to be true.  There is a correspondence between what Jesus says and what we know within ourselves to be true – it is the uncovering of the truth within us.

And then He promises through Baptism, a further Gift, the Spirit.  Jesus brings a shining Lamp to our inner life, His Spirit showing us what is going on within, wiping away the fog and mist and smoke that clouds our vision of what it is to be human and what it is to love, and also revealing the beauty of a soul made in God’s image – Jesus changes us from within.  And as we grow in self-knowledge, we also grow in the knowledge and love of our neighbours.  His mercy towards us, received, is turned into mercy towards our neighbour.

No one can do that but the Light that lightens every person.  Are these proud and vain boasts about Jesus?  Only if they are not true.

3 The Prince of Peace

But, is Jesus truly bringing about an ever growing kingdom of peace as Isaiah said that child would?

Yes, he is.  The number of people knowing true and lasting peace as they are reconciled with their Maker and even with their enemies, is growing.  More people are entering into God’s rest here on earth… and it will lead us to an eternal rest in the Paradise of God, a great company, the whole host of heaven.

But why this concern with truth and with humility at all?  Why are we so sure that these are important qualities, virtues, even the qualities of God?  Is it not because it is in our very bones, in our very nature, we recognize the truth of the humble way of Jesus?  Are we not stirred, in a way we cannot put into words, when we contemplate the babe in the manger, that God would choose to come to us? and in this way? isn’t there something so fitting about it?

Nativity with Shepherds, Berlin, Hugo van der Goes, 1480

God humbled himself, setting aside His divinity, to enter into the world, and become a little child in our midst.  Rather than fighting the powers that be, in the way of nations, he slays the wicked by the breath of his mouth, by bringing light into the darkness, by shining the truth into the world – as in the day of Midian – as when Israel overwhelmed her enemies, without any weapons other than trumpets and the light of torches.  God humbled himself further, even submitting himself to the world’s pain and violence on the Cross, as the lasting way to truly change it.  And there are innumerable Christian witnesses through the ages who have followed this way.  Long after proud kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen, long after death cults have burned themselves out, the humble and meek will be here to inherit the earth.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life – a statement most proud and absurd… unless it is true.  St John says it is true and we can know this God of gods even better today.  “To as many as received him, he gave them power to become the children of God.”

We receive Jesus by humbling ourselves as a little child, allowing the truth to lighten our souls, falling down before him at the altar rail, reaching out to him in penitence and faith.  And he will fill us, as he is full, with grace and truth.  And as the Word was made flesh, even so the Word will be made flesh, and dwell among us.