A Christmas sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut.

They say that Christians sing their theology.  We’ve done a lot of that tonight. I think you see it also in the hymns people choose for funerals. Hymns proclaim who we are  in a way that nothing else quite does.

I think it was Martin Luther who said, “The one who sings, prays twice.” The music reenforces the words, adds depth and power to the words. And that’s why, I think, Episcopalians have an official hymnal. What we sing matters, makes a difference. Until recently you couldn’t use  hymns from other sources in the Episcopal Church. Who knew what they might be saying?  But that policy seems to be dead, and it might as well be because the Episcopal Church has published supplementary hymnals in recent years that include hymns that theologians can’t sing. They say things I don’t believe.

In the official hymnal itself one of my favorite hymns has been corrupted to the point of heresy.  I gave you two versions of it this evening to look at because I think it takes us to the very heart of the meaning  of Christmas. The hymn is that very familiar and beautiful one that begins, “Once in royal David’s city.” It was written by Cecil Frances Alexander, an English vicar’s wife in the 19th century. She wrote a number of hymns that we probably also know: “There is a green hill far away,” is a hymn for Lent and Good Friday, and “I bind unto myself today,”  called St Patrick’s Breastplate, is one of the most powerful statements anywhere of the Christian theology of the Trinity. But tonight we sang “Once in royal David’s city,”  which is, of course, the Christmas story but it is also a powerful and accurate statement of the fundamental theology of Christianity, of the Incarnation, the belief that God in Christ took on human flesh, came into our world and lived among us and so united us to God uniquely and forever.

Now if that is true, Jesus was a real baby and that has always bothered people.  Back in the early centuries, people made up stories about Jesus’ childhood that made him different from the beginning. In one of those stories, other children took clay and shaped it into little birds. But Jesus took clay, shaped it into little birds,  and his really flew. That kind of thing.  There were people in the early days of the church  – and still today – who found it offensive to think that the Almighty God could really enter human life,  really be limited as we are limited,  really be a child  as every human being is or has been. They taught that God only seemed to be human in Jesus, only seemed to suffer,  only seemed to die. The church has consistently condemned  that teaching. Because if God only seemed to share our life,  what’s the point of Christian faith? Why not be Jewish or Moslem or Buddhist?

Humanity is limited. There are things we can’t do. If we can’t but Jesus could, he didn’t share human life to the full. Human life is about being forever frustrated by our limitations. If Jesus didn’t experience that, he didn’t really know what it means to be human. Now Cecil Frances Alexander got it right:
“Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.”

Exactly!  Babies are like that: “little, weak, and helpless.” What does it say to take that out?  But back in the 1980s when they sat down to revise the hymnal  they took that line out. And I think I know why.

Some people get on a subject like this –  changes in the Prayer Book, changes in the Hymnal – and go slightly ballistic, and see it as some vast conspiracy  to destroy the Christian faith. I don’t think so.  It was a committee that did it, and committees with the best intentions in the world mess things up. “God so loved the world  that he did not send a committee.” So there was this committee and they took the 1940 Hymnal and tried to make it better and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.  That’s how it is with committees.

In the 1940 Hymnal,  this hymn was in a section called  “Hymns for Children.”  They took that whole section out, for some reason. The birth rate was going down, church schools were getting smaller, maybe they thought children were on the way out and I guess they thought they could make this a hymn for grownups.  Bad idea. But you know what happens when a committee gets into something. So they took the line,  “He was little, weak, and helpless,” and substituted “He was tempted, scorned, rejected.” Well, that’s also true, but we’ve lost the point Mrs Alexander wanted to make:  He was a real baby.

But the worst thing the revisers did  is in the next verse. Where the original text said  “For that child, so dear and gentle, / Is our Lord in heaven above,”  they substituted,  “For that child who seemed so helpless / is our Lord in heaven above.”  Now, again, I think I know what they were up to.  They were trying to overcome the Victorian sentimentalism  that used words like “dear and gentle” and led to a “sweet Jesus” theology  that really isn’t helpful. It’s that theology  that gives us those Sunday school pictures of Jesus that look like someone too weak to be any help to anyone, That kind of Christ, they said to themselves,  was fine for Victorian women and children but the Jesus who confronted the authorities,  who challenged the powerful, who condemned the hypocritical rich, who faced death for us – that Jesus was not “dear and gentle.”  Well, no, he wasn’t, but as a baby he was and that’s still fundamental to the gospel.

That, you see, is what the department stores can’t ever get right. The point of Christmas is a helpless baby, born in poverty, sharing human weakness. But how many toys will that sell?  Who will trample their neighbors on Black Friday about that? So you shift the whole thing to Santa Claus,  a fictional creation, jolly and overweight, to encourage us also to be jolly and overweight and indulge ourselves.  That may make for nice parties in Advent but it’s not what Christmas is about.

Christmas is about the real world,  not a fictional one. It’s not about what seemed to happen  but what really took place. It’s about the stunning, astounding, almost-too-good-to-be-true proclamation that God does really care about us,  that God cares enough about you and me to live the life we live, endure the pain and the suffering that are part of it,  and die the death that comes at the end of it, and not in peace and tranquility in a hospital room or at home surrounded by the best medical care and a loving family but abandoned, alone, in agony and despair. Whatever we face,  God has been there. God knows.

There are other religious systems than Christianity and they contain much good teaching, but I’m not a Christian because of Jesus’ teaching. I’m a Christian because of the incarnation.  The incarnation connects the dots. Out there is a vast and incomprehensible universe; somewhere beyond human comprehension  is a power that shapes worlds. And here I am on a different plane entirely,  living a life in the flesh that gets hungry and thirsty and tired and frustrated. What connection could there be  between this limited life and the limitless power of God?  It’s lovely to have some teaching but I want to know that God knows me in a way with which I can make contact. God here.  God in human flesh.

Now that boggles many minds. Human beings have always tended to resist  the notion that flesh and deity can connect.  I mean, flesh gets grubby and it does things we don’t talk about in polite society  – or didn’t used to. Look at the way the world’s religions cloak the flesh and conceal its temptations. What is all that about?  Why do Muslim women in many societies wear the hijab or the burqa? Why do some fundamentalist Christians  require that women wear long dresses? Why are women who visit the Pope  required to wear long sleeves and “modest attire?” It’s because there are things holy people shouldn’t know about.  Right?  But God does know.

Surely God, the Creator, knows every aspect of Creation.  Actually there are always some who question that.  There were early theologians who said that God the Holy Spirit is always present  with Christians except when they’re in the marriage bed.  Even God, apparently, would be shocked to know what the flesh God created  was up to. But God does know.  God created us as we are. God came into human flesh.  And the whole meaning and character of our faith  is shaped by this basic assertion: God came into this world  in Jesus of Nazareth.

And that assertion has consequences.  Go into the developing parts of the world  and you find Christians building hospitals and working on health care.  Maybe you remember that talk we had last spring about a Christian clinic  in northern Nigeria. Health care is a priority for Christians;  not necessarily for others because they don’t know about the incarnation, God in human flesh. Some religions teach that we should rise above concern for the flesh. Not Christianity.  In all this health care debate in Congress and in the news and around the dinner table,  there’s a bottom line  that seldom if ever gets mentioned:  we can’t as a Christian society not provide health care.  Flesh and blood matter.  How much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing sick bodies? You can argue legitimately about how to do it:  government funding, private funding, or get Bill Gates to pay for it. But we can’t avoid it.  We can’t not pay for it. When people come to the emergency room,  we’re not going to turn them away because our society is based on certain values:  no one is beyond the reach of God’s care and we can’t neglect those for whom God cares even iof they have no insurance. Therefore someone has to pay.  The only real debate is “How?” God cares about this human flesh and we too have to care.

“With the poor and mean and lowly / Lived on earth our Savior holy.”  Mrs Alexander knew what incarnation  was all about. No one is beyond God’s care.  No one can be beyond ours.

The things of the flesh matter.  When you come to the altar tonight you will be given a piece of bread and a sip of wine: real things, real material things, as real as flesh and blood.  God comes to transform our flesh and blood in that transformed bread and wine.  It’s all about incarnation, the God who comes, who cares, who lives in us and lives among us still.  Really and truly. God comes and God cares. That’s the faith we proclaim;  that’s the faith that makes a difference, and that’s the good news of this day.

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