Christmas Eve December 24 2021
Living in the Upside Down
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
Many years ago, a priest of my acquaintance – not of this parish – used to give the exact same Christmas Eve sermon every year.
I still remember the very opening line: “It was anything but a silent night.” She went on to describe in some detail the fact that human birth is anything but silent. Nor would it be silent with animals standing around and happening in a barn. It was kind of a push back to the over-sentimentalized views of the Nativity as kind of thing that happened outside of history, outside of the physical world.
In fact, one of the earliest heretical gospels, the Gospel of St. James, describes Jesus’ birth as taking place in a cave, where Joseph and a midwife named Salome see a cloud envelop Mary… Then there’s a flash of light, the cloud clears, and suddenly, the Baby Jesus is at Mary’s breast.
A silent night, indeed.
It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags. And 2000 years later, we’re as puzzled as we could be. And we puzzle and puzzle ’till our puzzlers are sore.
So we hold these two things in tension: a silent night, holy night. Cattle lowing, shepherds silently keeping watch over their flocks by night. We like that, that’s manageable. And it sells. There’s any number of churches and Christians who simply view the Nativity and the Gospel as a kind of wispy nostalgia and sanctified sentimentalism. But we simultaneously want a warrior to charge in, rescue us or fight alongside us as a sidekick. This is also manageable. And it also sells. And there’s any number of churches and Christians who believe the Gospel is about recreating men… and it’s always men… into an army for God, complete with fighters and spiritualized weapons and spiritualized enemies.
But what isn’t manageable and what doesn’t sell is the warrior who is a baby. The king who rules through love rather than law. The God who exists and comes into his own creation with flesh, sinew, bones, blood and water.
One of the key cornerstones of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ was both human and divine, two natures miraculously joined. I think this was the important point that the priest was making so many years ago, driving it into the minds of listeners driven towards the saccharine, tame Jesus of Currier and Ives Christmas. That without the crying, without the blood, without the terror of giving birth in an animal stall, Jesus could not truly be the Lord. He couldn’t heal the sick unless he was sick with us; couldn’t take on death and hell unless he went there with us, he couldn’t be born unless he was born like us. No anti-physical Gnosticism for us, no ascent into a spiritual and pure plane, no ma’am… We worship a God that became flesh and blood, a God who dwelt among us, a God who is Emmanuel.
Right now we stand in a culture that is not dissimilar from the one in which Jesus was born into. The expectation is that saviors and kings and warriors come in the guise of saviors, kings and warriors.. We define those things culturally: Men with guns. Women with swords. Take back what belongs to us. Protect our stuff. Master Chiefs. Jedi.
Advertising Executives. But for Christians:
The Gospel of the Nativity isn’t merely that God becomes incarnate, but by becoming Incarnate, God upends all human expectation not just for how the whole world works, what should be valued by God’s creation, how we should treat individuals, and how we find union with God, but upending the very notion of who God is.
That cannot be a silent night. That cannot be kept quiet. That cannot be tamed or bought or sold, turned into tinsel or electric lights, or domesticated into a postcard or TV special. It’s a God who raises up a young virgin to give birth. A God who becomes a refugee. A God who becomes a boy and teaches the sages. A God who is baptized. A God who heals women and men on the outside of power and the outside of society’s material blessings, and condemns those who enrich themselves at others’ expense. A God who suffers. A god who dies. A man who resurrects. A savior whose first companion in paradise isn’t a king, isn’t a priest, isn’t an apostle, isn’t a saint… but a thief. crucified alongside him. A God who comes to us first.
In a manger.