We’re almost halfway through the twelve days of Christmas, and I’m currently taking a much-needed vacation. Yet I continue to reflect on the Incarnation in the afterglow of our worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Incarnation is everything to me in terms of theology that animates my life. It’s what makes me feel loved by God more than anything else.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Charles Gore, a theologian and Anglican bishop in the early 20th century. According to Bishop Gore, “The cross is the crown of the Incarnation.” In other words, Jesus’ self-sacrifice in becoming human ranks right up there with his self-sacrifice in the crucifixion. His work of redeeming humanity from the power of sin began with his birth. As a favorite Christmas hymn puts it: Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die. (“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings”).
As we’ll hear in this Sunday’s Gospel (the prologue to John), God the Son existed before the foundation of the world, long before he became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Apostle Paul echoes this idea in his letter to the Philippians. God the Son did not regard equality with God the Father as “something to be exploited” but “emptied himself” of powers of the Godhead to come among us (Phil. 2:6-7) – born as a baby, no less, in the humblest of circumstances, to an oppressed people, and under the threat of murder as soon as Herod got wind of it from the magi.
Jesus’ solidarity with humanity is staggering, from the cradle to the cross. This great act of love highlights our dire need for a Savior and the sacrifice our God endured to meet that need.
At Church of the Incarnation, our midnight mass on Christmas Eve captures this sentiment with a joy that can turn sober and somber. We are blessed with music that is exquisite and symphonic as we listen to a string quartet and harp along with our magnificent choir and organ. The musical selections combine to exalt our newborn King with great grandeur while also allowing us to feel something of the struggle surrounding Jesus’ birth.
My favorite piece this year was “There Is No Rose,” sung by the choir during the preparatory service of music. It’s a Christmas carol from 1420 originally written in a combination of Middle English and Latin. The rose refers to Mary:
There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu;
Click here for the full text (including Latin translation).
What struck me more than the words themselves was the setting by contemporary composer Philip Stopford. Beautiful, hopeful, and a bit sorrowful too. As I listened to the choir, I felt the tender compassion of God tinged with pain – the pain present in the Christmas story, the pain of our sin that made the Incarnation necessary, and the pain of all humanity that God came to save.
I thought back to my sermon from earlier that morning, when I preached about a Lutheran church in Bethlehem that has a display of the Christ Child surrounded by rubble. The pastor spoke to this unconventional nativity scene and the bitter irony that there would be no Christmas worship services in Bethlehem due to the Israel-Hamas War. He stressed that despite the cancellation of services, Christmas itself cannot be cancelled. “Christmas is a ray of light and hope from the heart of pain and suffering,” he said. “Christmas is the radiance of life from the heart of destruction and death…. If Jesus was born today, he’d be born under the rubble.” I agree.
It’s no surprise that Christmas comes with joy as well as heartache on both a global and personal level. The holidays stir up our grief. They can also throw in our faces all the things we long for but can’t seem to grasp.
And there in the middle of it – in the middle of the rubble – is Emmanuel (“God with us”), closer than a whisper, reflecting God’s heart, bringing hope and promise and the assurance of God’s unfailing love. I think this is why so many people cry at the communion rail on Christmas Eve. Always so many on Christmas Eve.
For me, Christmas is a lot like Good Friday and Easter Sunday rolled into one. We embrace both the suffering and the joy as we embrace the baby Jesus, for Christ embraces us in the enormity of God’s love. The paradox of a baby in a manger (or a man on a cross) being King of the world is at the heart of our faith and the great Christian hope. Jesus is forever our newborn King, crucified Christ, and risen Lord.
As we move through the season of Christmas and look to the season of Epiphany, may the True Light be light and warmth and hope within you. And may the New Year bring peace to you and our weary world.