I hate to be the one to break it to you, but contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not merely about the birth of Jesus.
Yes, you heard me right. And no, I’m not entirely off my rocker. I mean it: Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus.
Now, before you report me to the bishop for heresy perhaps I should explain…
While I am just as much of a sucker for nostalgia as anyone, I don’t want us to suffer any illusions that we are here merely to commemorate some long ago event in some far away place. An event that took place over two millennia ago and many thousands of miles away – no matter how grand – is far too removed to effect any real change in your life or in mine. You see, if Christmas remains only in the past it remains a safe distance away.
Nor are we here for a nice bedtime story. Sure, we have heard the familiar words from the prophet Isaiah, “Those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Yes, we’ve listened to the angel’s glad tidings of great joy, of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Yes, we will sing some of our favorite Christmas carols and even Silent Night by candle light.
But we are not here merely to commemorate Jesus’ birth.
Whether we realize it or not, what is at stake here is something far more risky than the recitation of a sacred story. What is at stake is not just what God has done, but what God might now be doing. In this sense we are not here merely as observers, but as participants. In short, we are here to risk incarnation. Again, yet as if for the first time, we are here to flesh out our faith.
As we shift from story to sacrament, we shift also from past tense to present. In a very real way, the incarnation is still waiting to take place, for Christ’s Incarnation is not complete until it is accomplished in you. It is not merely a historical event, but an ongoing revelation of God’s love made manifest to our bodily senses.
As lovely as they are, Christmas is not primarily about pageants and presents, it is about the present tense presence of Jesus, in our own time, in our own places, in our very own lives. To reduce Christmas to a mere memory is to risk losing its meaning altogether.
Quaker theologian Parker Palmer ponders this disturbing disconnect in his December column for the publication On Being:
“There’s often a distressing disconnect,” he says, “between the good words we speak and the way we live our lives…our good words tend to float away even as they leave our lips, ascending to an altitude where they neither reflect nor connect with the human condition. We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us. But in our violent world, it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, and we don’t like the odds.”
The startling truth about Christmas is not merely that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” but that God’s very same Word seeks to impregnate us still. In “fleshing out” God’s love for the world, you and I are meant to draw down those lofty words and birth them into being. How else might we expect incarnation to work? Faith is not some magic trick for us to conjure up when we’re in a bind. Incarnation is the lived out consequence of what we believe, brought to life by God’s indwelling spirit.
We are meant not only to speak about justice, but to do justice. We are meant not only to speak about love, but to embody love in our actions. We are meant not only to philosophize about our faith, but to take the risk of incarnation, for our faith to take on flesh and blood.
So what exactly might God’s love look like alive and in the flesh? How do we move from merely mouthing lofty words, to make them real?
Well, it just so happens that this kind of love lived out looks a lot like the life of Christ Jesus our Lord. The historical event of Jesus’ birth set into motion a series of events that call upon us to continue that incarnation of God’s love. And it just so happens that we, as we receive the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, so, too, we become the body of Christ – to make incarnate God’s love for the world. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a present tense continuation of the incarnation in and through us.
Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. Christmas is about taking the risk of incarnation all over again, for God and for us. The Word is still becoming flesh, and the Word is still dwelling among us.
So, yes: Let us hear again the sacred story of Christ’s birth. Let us sing and rejoice and remember the faithfulness of God in ages past. But let us never, never forget that God’s story is yet to be continued. And that your incarnation of God’s love is well worth the risk.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio