English essayist G. K. Chesterton said that Christmas is the world's last link with its Christian past. Though Christ's name is banned from public prayers, His manger scene from public places, and His birth no longer considered the dividing line of history, Christmas remains. But it's not enough for us Christians to say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Season's Greetings" or "Jesus is the reason for the season." We could make more of this one holy day that all America stands still for than we do. We don't because we don't see all of that Christmas is.
Christmas is bigger than life. Alexander the Great, the conqueror of the ancient world left behind memorials of his victories to exaggerate his glory. He left behind weapons and armor that were larger than what was really worn. He left bits, bridles, and mangers for horses bigger than usual (Plutarch Lives of the Greeks, 302). Isn't that funny? It reminds me of the Paul Bunyan things you see up north: a huge ax, a giant blue ox. Only these weren't a side-show tourist attraction. These were meant to make people think Alexander was superhuman.
Christmas is bigger than life. Jesus is superhuman. The manger Jesus left behind is huge. It's big enough to fit the Creator of the world. It's big enough to fit the One who knows how many stars are in the sky, how big the universe really is, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This manger had to be big enough to hold all the grace the world would ever need and all the truth too because "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."
Jesus left behind a humongous memorial. Not just an oversized manger, but a huge font, pulpit, chalice and paten. God took on a body to redeem our bodies. His body was baptized in water so He might leave us water to rebirth our bodies. He breathed the Spirit from His body's nose into the ears of dead bodies to put forgiveness in the mouths of men for the ears of mankind. He left His Body to feed our Bodies and His Blood to quench our thirst for forgiveness, life and salvation. Yet, we make little of these mighty miracles that are more divine than healing the sick or even raising the dead.
How can I say this? Because we don't glory in the manger, in the flesh and blood of Jesus, or in the Water, Words, Bread and Wine, He left behind. We glory in the big, majestic thoughts we can muster about God not in His manger. We think about the power God shows in a hurricane not in Baptism. We think our words of love for God are more potent than His Word that forgives us. We think more of what awesome things God might do in our life than what He does do with Bread and Wine.
Luther called it "godless temerity" to abandon the flesh and blood God took on "in order to become recognizable" to us and seek another way to meet God (AE, 29, 111). Chesterton said, "Those who will not begin at the bodily end of things are always prigs and may soon be Christian Scientists" (What's Wrong with the World, 69.) We want to think, speak, pray about the "will of God for my life" while ignoring what He wills for and to us in the manger, in the font, in the pulpit, on the altar.
Why would we do this? Why at Christmas particularly would we ignore or downplay the manger and all that it means and try to think about God in His majesty? This is the equivalent of bypassing the plug in your living room to plug your tree into the transformer on the power pole. That might lead to serious trouble even as bypassing the manger surely will, so why do we do it? Because we're afraid that Christmas is actually smaller than life.
Novelist Taylor Caldwell describes a character this way, "Always, he was terrified that he might discover that the mountain on which he had built his house was only a molehill, and the God he worshiped dwelt not in far and momentous heaven, but the habitations of earth-worms" (The Arm and the Darkness, 131). Admit it. You bow before this altar sometimes and fear what if it's all a lie? What if the Rock of our Salvation is a small pebble? What if the History of Religions School is right and this faith comes not from heaven but evolved from earth? I mean doesn't it look and feel earthy? I speak to you of flesh and blood, dust and dirt, salvation in a bleeding body, a dead corpse, and of earthly Water, Bread and Wine in the hands of a man. Does this look divine or heavenly to you?
The crucified Jesus and our connection to Him now: Baptism, Absolution, Communion look small, forgettable, weak, and above all earthly and earthy. So why not downplay them? Focus instead on what even the world has to respect: the might and majesty of God and what great things people can do for Him if they just all work together. Don't be deceived; we will go this way if left to our own devices. And be clear on this; when you do downplay the Word in Water, in the mouth of a man, or in Bread and Wine, it's because you have already downplayed, the Word made flesh.
We are sorely tempted to do this, yet our salvation is only found on a mountain the world considers a molehill. O Mount Sinai where God in all His majesty gave the Ten Commandments that's impressive. People will tolerate symbols of that going up in schools, in courtrooms, in public places. But that tiny, ugly, skull shaped hill, with a dead Man hanging on a cross won't be found in any public square. But that's the God we worship, and He doesn't dwell for us in far off heaven but in a place earthworms feel at home: a body made of dirt. And this is the God we need for salvation. We don't need a God in heaven giving us rules, ways to live, or purpose for living. We need a God who can do what we cannot do to save us from the only thing we can be: lost and condemned.
Cyril of Alexandria said, "All that is humanity lives again in Jesus" (in Elert, Eucharistic Fellowship, 29). All that is humanity is either decaying, dying or dead in us. Our thoughts fly heavenward toward God only to come crashing back to earth, to self, to despair. Our words take a similar path. We trill of our love, our devotion, our praise of a great, awesome loving God while our hearts are laden with fears, with loves, with trust for something more than God. Our actions don't even get as high as our words or thoughts. Even are best ones are no more than filthy rags says Isaiah.
There is no refuge from what we are in our thoughts, words, or deeds. Our refuge is in the thoughts, words and deeds of the God/Man. Becoming one with us, He did what we were supposed to do. Laden with all the weaknesses of mortal man, burdened with all our sorrows, shames, and woes, He lived the perfect life. From the manger on, it was Him for us. Go down the 10 Commandments that you see like the Sword of Damocles hanging over you head and check them off: done, done, done.
Now see what happens, not to you, to Him. Jesus whom the Father declared to be His beloved Son with whom He was perfectly pleased is led like an innocent, gentle Lamb to be slaughtered, and not just killed but abused, tortured, and damned first. Remember "all that is humanity lives again in Jesus," so all that humanity had done was punished in Him. Go down your list again. Think of all that you think, do, and say wrong. Think of those things you don't want to think about, and see them drop by bloody drop covered by the bleeding, dying Jesus.
Christmas is bigger than life, but we're afraid sometimes that the simple miracle of God taking on flesh and dwelling among is actually smaller than life, smaller than our sinfulness, smaller than our problems, smaller than the problems that beset the world now. What can God stepping into time and leaving us baptismal water, forgiving words, and Bread and Wine do about this latest meltdown of the god mammon, your health fears, or family worries? Is Christmas bigger than these deep, dark problems? Yes, because as John says, Christ's life is the light of men.
Christ is like the fire lit in a dark woods that makes all the world around utter darkness as soon as it blazes up. When the fire burst into blaze on Christmas in the manger, then it became apparent how dark things really were. I think this is why for Christians this season can be blue. Christ the light of the world throws into dark relief all other things. Therefore, turn toward the fire not the outer darkness.
Come closer to the fire and see that this is Christmas. Christmas is the God who dwells in light unapproachable becoming the Light of the world in a flesh and blood Baby. Everyone can approach a baby without fear. In Him the unapproachable light is lamp unto our feet and light unto our path. In Him Baptism shines forth not as simple water only but as a life-giving water rich in grace. In Him Absolution blazes forth as not as mere words but as a power to separate sinners from their sins. In Him Communion is not just Bread and Wine but the Light of the world in Body and Blood for us to eat and drink to shine in this darkness.
Christmas is the God who is a consuming fire dwelling in flesh and blood as He dwelt in the burning bush without burning it up. Christ is the cleansing purifying power of fire and heat safely packaged for sinners to use. Christ pours out the flaming Holy Spirit on us by the Waters of Baptism. Christ safely burns up sins but not sinners in Absolution. And the God who is a consuming fire enables us to consume Him in Communion.
Christmas is bigger than life, bigger than your sins, bigger than your death and the devil too. Therefore, Christmas still shines amidst all the world's darkness, and as John says "the darkness has not overcome it." Therefore, the darkness won't overcome us either. Though men are casting down their hearts and throwing up their hands in despair in the face of the darkness. We will once more lift up our hearts, put out our hands, and open our mouths and ears to touch, to taste, to see, to smell, to hear the Light this Christmas. Christmas is Christ, and it's impossible to make too much of Him who made Himself so little that He might redeem us so bigly and brightly. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (20081225); John 1: 1-18