The announcement of the birth of Christ, which we have just heard in the Gospel (Luke 2:1-14), is concrete and full of homely details. It is packed with information which enables us to visualize the event. We learn when and where the birth took place; who was in charge in the secular world at the time; why the happy couple were away from home; who took notice of the birth and came to visit; and the simplicity and poverty of the circumstances. Each detail makes it clear that the birth described happens within human history. It is not portrayed as a mythical event. The story does not begin “once upon a time.” Jesus is not born on Olympus like the Greek gods, or even, like the late Kim Jong-il on Baekdu mountain, mythical birthplace of the Korean ancestors. No, Jesus is born in a stable, alongside beasts of burden and with all the sounds and smells associated with them.
Only later in the narrative, and to witnesses not yet at the scene, does a divine messenger announce to the shepherds, that is, to a bunch of locals, to nobodies, the meaning of the birth. The shepherds (and of course, we readers) get a heads-up which uncovers the deeper meaning of what has happened. “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” That’s the preview, or if you wish, the spoiler, that signals the true and deeper meaning of this birth.
Taken together, these two elements—an apparently ordinary human birth and an angelic message—tell us much more than all the detail Luke crams into the setup for his story. What it tells us is this: God becomes human in Jesus. Or to put it in the way John the Evangelist does in the Gospel for Christmas Day: “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
These are affirmations of faith. I think most everyone is willing to grant that there was a man called Jesus who was a devout Jew, who lived and taught in first century Judea, who was crucified, and whose followers claimed was raised from the dead. In other words, whether or not you accept the claims made about him, there is no doubt that there really was a Jesus. Jesus was an historical figure whether or not you think he is God.
What the gospel is claiming is something more than that, way more. The meaning of Christmas is, at least from God’s side, that God became one of us. And that says as much about us as it says about God, if you are willing to accept it. The fancy theological word for it is Incarnation, literally “enfleshment.” It means that God comes near, because “he so loved the world.” It means that human beings for all their disappointments, both those they cause and those they suffer, are something special. For all the ways we have messed up, at least once—in Jesus—we got it right. But more than once, many times more than once, more than we can imagine or know, we get it right because of him.
Christmas is God’s act of faith in us. Christmas is God’s investment in us. Considering our performance—our wars, lies, hatreds—one might say God is not a savvy investor, he buys junk bonds! But Christmas says that’s not how God sees it. God is bullish on us, believes we have a future, is willing to extend us credit. In Jesus he puts down a binder and a first payment.
1 In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets; 2
in these last days,
he spoke to us through a son… (Hebrews 1.1-2)
Thanks be to God.
- Homily: Christmas (Year B) 2011
Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
The Rev. Msgr. Donald M. Hanson is the priest at