St John’s Seaham Christmas 2005
Emmanuel – God with us
Last year on Thursday morning before Christmas I was up at five ‘o clock and by quarter to six was driving Jennifer to work in Newcastle. We arrived at 6-15 but I had to wait until 7 when the store opened and I was able to pick up the M & S goods for Christmas consumption. So I was advised to find a place where I could get a bacon sandwich. In Northumberland street everywhere was lit up but closed, even Macdonalds. There were no bacon sandwiches there. Twenty minutes later I was standing in a silent and deserted Eldon Sq. All the shops were lit up and the doors closed, and the thought did cross my mind that this is an ideal time for a husband to bring his wife shopping.
Twenty minutes later and still without a bacon sandwich, I found myself looking into the Eldon Square life-size Crib. I thought this is why I am here in Newcastle at such an unearthly hour, because I am preparing to celebrate your birth. Everyone likes to celebrate the birth of a baby but this is a special birth. Then I thought, here you are in a foreign country being born in a stable because there was nowhere else to go. I wonder if there were any super bugs there. Here you lie in the affluent West with all these shops telling us what we need to celebrate Christmas. I wonder what you think about that. You must agree there is a lack of proportion in the message today’s Christmas celebrations now convey to our children and grandchildren.
Recently Muriel Porter, an Australian Anglican wrote about friends of hers who took their young son to see the Myer Christmas windows. He was engrossed by them, carefully following the story of The Polar Express - a story he knows well - from scene to scene. Then he came to the window depicting Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. The nativity tableau was quite new to him.
“So what’s the story here then?” he asked his parents. Porter went on to point out that this boy belongs to “the second generation at least, that has almost entirely missed out on learning the basic stories of the Christian faith, the religion that shaped Western civilization.”
However, this lack of proportion is not only an issue from a cultural point of view. It is an issue because it obscures the basic truth that when Mary and Joseph, and then the shepherds, looked into the manger, they might have seen a human baby, but they were actually gazing upon God.
I read recently about a Christmas display where giant plush bears were robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger. If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. Christmas cards have also depicted such images. It is a scene filled with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie, God as a pet. More recently we have had The Beckham family replacing the Holy Family in Madame Tussauds.
This is very bad news
For one thing, a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp the great heartbreaks of life; it cannot deflect the hard, sharp reeling pain of a death by drunken drivers. We want a God cut down to my size, fluffy and approachable, politically correct and without all those difficult commandments. But once we get him down to teddy-bear size we find that he is powerless. He is not able to ease our suffering or comprehend our dark confusions He does not have strength equal to our grief. A reduced God is no God at all. Furthermore, to suggest that in this celebrity obsessed politically correct culture the Beckhams could ever mirror the Holy Family is blasphemy.
God cannot be less than us; he must be more. Our understanding is partial and dim, but we know at least that he is greater than us. We grasp for analogies: some people are artists, but God is the greatest artist. Some are wise, but he is wisdom itself. Most frequently, however, we say that God is love, because love is the best thing we know.
What do you see when you look into that crib?
Let me tell you. It is not the manifestation of God in a person’s life. It is the Incarnation of God in a personal life. This baby is a real Incarnation of a pre-existing Divine Person. He who existed with God eternally before all worlds were made; He who in the beginning was the Word and who was with God and who was God; at a certain time in history, for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. He who shared the divine nature with his Father decided to unite that divine nature with our human nature in order to redeem this alienated and spiritually distressed world. Divinity comes into humanity that we might participate in his divinity.
It is not the case of a highly favoured individual being raised to the status of divinity. It is the case of the only begotten Son becoming other than He was, whilst continuing at the same time to be himself. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Or as the hymn puts it:
He is that He was and forever shall be,But becomes that He was not for you and for me.
It was time for me to leave Eldon Square, without my bacon sandwich, and pick up the Christmas goodies from M & S. So my story has a happy ending because I left Eldon Sq. with my sermon for Christmas and when I got home I had a fried egg sandwich.
So go out from here and tell people that Christmas is about a child being born and His name is Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace. When you hold out your hands to receive that bread, what you receive is the life of him who is the Word, who was in the beginning with God and who was God and became flesh to dwell among us. That flesh did not become something different; it remained as it was. The God who dwelt in it remained what he was and always had been but became what he was not. The human and the divine are perfectly blended in the one Person.
So we can believe that now also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is changed into the Body of God the Word. It has been been consecrated by being inhabited by the Word that had tabernacled in the flesh. Therefore, from the same cause by which the Word was made flesh, a similar result takes place now. That same Presence of the Word in this bread, “is sanctified by the same Presence of God and prayer”; and it is at once changed into “This is My Body.” It changes our perishable humanity, for by this communion with what is divine mankind partakes of God’s divine life through the Son on whose Body we feed. This is the purpose of receiving this Sacrament. That is why we cannot tamper or alter sacraments because they then become invalid and we lose our salvation, the saving life they carry. He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine. He blends Himself with the bodies of believers, to ensure by this union with the immortal, you and I, and all who receive this Sacrament may be a sharer in incorruption.
He gives these gifts and by virtue of his consecration of them He transelementises them. Now there is a new word for you – Transelementisation. It isn’t my word. It derives from a Greek word and comes from Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century and it not only influenced John Damascene in his Orthodox Faith, the notion it conveys occurs in the sermons of the Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes in the 17th century. It means this, that through Christ’s consecration of these elements of bread and wine the natural quality of these visible things is transformed to that immortal thing – Christ himself. As the flesh of Christ is not diminished by his presence in it, so the natural quality of this bread is not diminished. Nevertheless in his flesh he is not a mere man, so this bread is not mere bread. No longer are these elements mere bread and wine. To approach the altar and treat them as mere bread and wine is, as the eighteenth century Anglican Bishop Beveridge explained in one of his sermons, means to be an unworthy communicant.
Truly it means that you go out from here a Theophoros or Godbearer, a Christophoros or Christbearer, so that wherever you go you are pregnant with Christ because ‘The word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. Do not let yourself get in the way of showing forth Christ whose life is in you.