CHRISTMAS EVE 2001
Do you know what “Beth-le-hem” means?
The literal translation of that word from Hebrew into English is House of Bread. Bethlehem means “HOUSE OF BREAD.”
So Jesus was born in the house of bread.
The Child of Bethlehem—the House of Bread—grew into the Man of Jerusalem. And “Je-ru-salem” means, literally, “The City of Peace”. So, the Child of the House of Bread became the Man of the City of Peace.
That’s the problem with Christmas: we know how the story ends. We cannot linger long by the stable because we know that the story of that little child born in Bethlehem will end, years later on a cross in Jerusalem.
We are the People who don’t want to know “how the story ends.”
We want to find out for ourselves about the ending. We want to be surprised. We want the pleasure of hearing or reading or seeing the story without knowing how it ends. “Don’t ruin the ending for me,” I’ve said to people countless times. I don’t want to “be told” how the story ends. I want to discover “the ending” for myself….”spoiler alert!” has become part of our culture's 'familiar sayings'.
But we know this story all too well. We have all heard the Angel’s song before. We have all known the shepherds’ wonder before. We have all gone to Bethlehem before to see this thing that has happened before. There’s the mother and her newborn babe, and Joseph in the background. And, more importantly, we know the end of the story that began in Bethlehem. The story ends on a bleak and brutal hillside in Jerusalem—that Baby, grown to manhood—hangs from a cross between two thieves, suffering, bleeding, dying.
We’ve heard it all before. Old news. No better than reruns late at night.
So where’s the wonder, where’s the magic, where’s the mystery of it all?
Imagine this—you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you don’t know about Jerusalem and the Cross. Imagine you don’t know the story. Imagine it’s all happening right now, for the first time. Imagine this…and LISTEN.
It gets cold in the Judean desert. Not like the cold of Connecticut—the cold there is surprising and sharper, more distinct, because the days are so much warmer than here in mid-winter. So, imagine that kind of cold—the cold that suddenly chills you to the bone and leaves you weak, vulnerable, helpless.
Imagine the desert’s cold. Then imagine this, a baby is being born.
That is miracle and magic enough. A baby born in the cold on nearly the darkest day of the year. A baby born hungry and chilled, wrapped hurriedly in rough blankets and handed to his mother. The mother is almost a child herself—a young, unsophisticated teenager—and she takes the child and holds it to her breast.
Miracle and magic. But not the whole story.
That child, in most ways, is just like any other baby—vulnerable, helpless, totally dependent—but in one way, that Child is different, unlike any other baby ever born.
That child, mother’s milk running down his cheek, cold and hungry—that Child is God.
Here’s where the story of that magic, miraculous baby—as magic and miraculous as every baby—turns weird. That Baby is God.
This is the part of the story we miss and don’t hear and don’t fully appreciate because we know it so well: THAT BABY IS GOD.
This is the Eve of the Incarnation. What we celebrate this night is not just the magic and miracle of birth and new life and joy—we celebrate something hopelessly profound, utterly mysterious, totally irrational.
Tonight we celebrate that God—the great God Almighty, the Creator of all that was or is or ever can be, the one who flung the stars into infinite space and formed this earth, our island home and made us from imagination and hopefulness—that God…the Holy Otherness…the “Being-ness” that brought all else into “being”…that God took on flesh, the Divine and Ineffable and Eternal ONE took on Humanity and Carnality and Mortality.
If we didn’t know how the story ends, we would stop believing the story right here, right now. It’s too much to bear, too fantastic, too unbelievable, too irrational….And yet, in spite of all that, it is TRUE.
And when God took on human flesh and became one of us, all humanity—each and every human being who ever lived or lives now or will someday live—each human being became a little HOLY. The magic and miracle runs both ways. When the HOLY ONE became HUMAN, all HUMANITY became a little HOLY.
We tend to say that God is “omnipotent”—all knowing. But there WAS ONE THING God—who is Eternal Spirit—did not know. God did not know what it felt like to be mortal and have flesh. So God became a human child—to know hunger, know cold, know pain, know suffering, know death—just like we human beings know those things.
But when God took on flesh and became a human being, God learned some other things from us. God learned how humans experience wonder and joy and excitement and hopefulness and love. From the flesh God took on, God learned love. God learned about love from Mary, who held him and nursed him and kept him safe. God learned about love from Joseph, who guarded him and cared for him and taught him. God learned about love from Jesus’ disciples love for him and the love of those Jesus taught and healed.
Jesus—who is God incarnate—learned Love from human beings like us. The true meaning of the Incarnation is contained in what God learned from being human. And what God learned from taking on flesh was this—God learned how to love.
I know this all sounds backward from the way we’ve been taught about it. In the breathtaking gospel I read from John tonight, it says “God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” I know that’s the way we’ve been taught—that it was God’s LOVE that caused God to put on flesh in the first place. But the magic and miracle runs both ways. God DID put on human flesh because God LOVES us; and when he became human, God learned about “human love.”
God loves in a different way that we love. There’s even a different word for God’s love in Greek. God’s love is always AGAPE in Greek. Agape is a pure, ultimate and unmotivated concern for another’s well being. That’s a kind of love human beings are incapable of feeling—and that’s because it’s not a “feeling” or an emotion at all. Agape is more like a “philosophical position” than it’s like what we human beings would ever call “love”. Until God became a human being in the person of Jesus, God’s love was distant, detached and rather “passionless”.
And human love is always full of “passion”. Whether it is a mother’s love for her children or a husband’s love for his wife or the erotic love between two lovers or the noble love of one’s companions and community and nation—whatever kind of “human love” we’re talking about—it is full of PASSION and messiness. Somehow, in becoming human, God learned that “passion” that caused the Child of Bethlehem to grow into the Man of Jerusalem.