Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard Van Honthorst (1622)
The Nativity of the Son
by Rev. Jack King
Tonight we greet one another with the words, ‘Merry Christmas!’ It’s a lovely and good greeting. We wish one another peace and joy at this time of year, and in so doing, we proclaim the message of the angels to one another.
It’s strange to imagine celebrating Christmas without greeting one another in this way. However it’s a fairly recent custom, a greeting which became widely popular in the Victorian era because of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. Much has changed about Christmas in the western world from that time to this, of course, and American culture has much to do with that. Sadly, in our culture, Christmas has become synonymous with a frenzied shopping season, out-of-control consumerism, and tinsled sentimentality. It’s not difficult to admit that we’ve lost the plot.
Which is why we need this place, this time, this story, this night. Material gifts cannot reach the depths of our hearts, sentimental feelings cannot heal our pain, holiday parties cannot reveal the divine image in which we were made. We do not need Christmas as we have seen it in our culture; we need something better. We need the Feast of the Nativity. If Christmas in America has left you tired, come and celebrate the Feast of Jesus’ Nativity. For tonight we celebrate that Jesus became ‘native’ to this place, this hurting and dark world.
It’s interesting that the word Christmas doesn’t enter the Church’s language until 1038. For one thousand years, Christians used the word ‘nativity’ almost exclusively when speaking of Jesus’ birth. So what does the Nativity of Jesus mean for us? What does it mean for the Word, the Son of God, to become native to this place called earth?
That is what John seeks to express in this symphonic beginning to his Gospel. Only John’s transcendent prose helps us approach this tremendous mystery. ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ God has taken our same skin; he descends from heaven, taking residence in a small hamlet in Galilee. His life began in the squalor and rejection of a cave in Bethlehem.
God created the world by this very same Word—the Word who looked upon the world and said ‘it is good.’ And yet, John tells us this Word made flesh ‘was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.’ And so, when God comes nearby—when Jesus becomes native to this place called earth—he becomes familiar with rejection at his nativity.
What does the Nativity of the Son mean in those first days of his life? It means becoming the target of a terrorist plot for innocent, young children. When God became native to this place, He became a refugee, fleeing from Herod’s raging violence, seeking sanctuary in a foreign and strange land. How we need the Feast of the Nativity to help us see our world; our world where over one million refugees flee ruthless violence a few hundred miles from the place where Jesus was born. /
Christ’s reveals his nativity to us beyond his birth in Bethlehem and his flight into Egypt. In those silent years, when he certainly would have been Joseph’s apprentice, we see the Word made flesh revealed as a carpenter, a laborer, a craftsman. The Word made flesh must have submitted himself to both the mundane and demanding aspects of labor: learning skills slowly, tidying the workspace, facing an overwhelming list of tasks.
His nativity means he is no stranger to family conflict, either. His brothers believed him a madman at one point; he announced that whoever does the will of his Father are his brothers, sisters, and mother. His nativity means he wept tears at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. With loud cries, Christ weeps in the Garden of Gethsemane; he cries in agony from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The nativity of Christ means that Jesus becomes native to suffering.
But the suffering that became native to him—estrangement from the Father—was completely foreign to him. He is the Son who is eternally at the Father’s side. Yet he becomes the Son of Man to redeem that estrangement forever.
Jesus does not become the Son of Man by sharing every human experience. He never marries, he is not the father of natural children. He never travels beyond Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. He does not become the Son of Man by having universal experiences. He becomes the Son of Man by entering the depths of our conflict, the problem that afflicts every man, woman, and child: our estrangement from God. We are estranged from God, we are estranged from one another. And together, we are estranged from the original glory God gave to human beings in Eden.
But the Nativity of Jesus makes everything new, makes human beings capable of glory again. Paul Evdokimov said, “God had to become man so as to restore to him the ancient image and dizzying dignity of being a child of God.” And this is why many Christians call the Feast of the Nativity ‘the feast of re-creation.’ For tonight we celebrate the “reestablishment of what had been sketched out in Paradise when, in the cool of the evening, God came looking for man and talked with him.”
John tells us tonight that we see a particular kind of glory in the Word made flesh. This is not a glory native to this world: the glory of fame, vanity, and power. This glory is full of grace and truth. This glory is ‘as of the only Son from the Father.’
Nowhere in John’s Gospel of Jesus does the Lord claim glory from himself. He only knows glory in relationship with his Father. We were made for glory. But we only know glory that comes in relationship with the Father that Jesus knows. Vladimir Lossky described the soul as ‘a light shut up in a cave, but it is none the less a light divine and inextinguishable.’ And the soul’s light can blaze with brightness only when it meets and welcomes the Christ child, born in the cave, wrapped in swaddling cloths. For only there can the soul behold the mystery of the Nativity: that Christ became native to our suffering so we could become native to his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father.
In the end, I have no desire to replace the word ‘Christmas’ or the joyful greeting, ‘Merry Christmas!’ I never want to become Ebenezer Scrooge. Instead, what I pray for all of us is the experience of true joy, what our Victorian forebears called ‘mirth.’ To quote a great Victorian writer, G.K. Chesterton, ‘Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian.’ And joy it is that Chesterton sees as the secret of Christ when he writes:
The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in very other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native cry. Yet He concealed something. Solemn superman and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes faced that it was His mirth.
And it is the secret of our Lord’s joy, his mirth, that is revealed tonight in the Bread and Wine, the event we call the Christ-mass. For where the Christ-mass is celebrated, there you participate in the Feast of his Nativity; there you become native to his glory. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good,’ the Psalmist wrote. And that is what we mean on this night when we say, ‘Merry Christmas!’ In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.