24 December 2012
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-21
Picture this scenario. Forget every ten years. The census will be taken this year during Christmas week. We will all have to return to the birthplace of the man of the family. This means that I must take my wife who was born in the Montreal area to Brooklyn, New York—a foreign country where the English language is unknown in any recognizable form to anyone from the Middle West. That’s my itinerary. Each of you can imagine your own. But think of the larger picture. Think of what the Interstate Highway System will look like in such a week. Or, if you don’t hail from Wisconsin or a neighboring state, think of O’Hare Airport at the worst you’ve known it and factor that by infinity.
Given a different time and a different place and different modes of transportation, this is what Luke tells us took place on the first Christmas. We’ve listened to the Christmas story read so many times that we no longer hear what’s being said. But what’s being said is that Caesar Augustus, in an effort to do something orderly—probably collect taxes—created chaos. Yet it is out of this chaos that God created a new order.
For the Christmas story, as it continues in Luke’s account of it, is really the Creation story updated and given a happy ending. We remember that in Genesis God created heaven and earth, day and night, animals and man. From man he created woman. Then Adam and Eve sinned, and the angel expelled them from the Garden of Eden. They left in fear recognizing their nakedness, which has inspired a tradition of exegesis connecting their sin to sex.
Now think of Luke’s story of the first Christmas in the context of the Creation story. It is night but, to paraphrase Isaiah, the people who walk in darkness see a great light. So we have night and day. The shepherds are in the fields and the angels are in the sky. So we have heaven and earth. Joseph and Mary are in a stable, undoubtedly with animals nearby; and the shepherds are watching their sheep. So we have mankind and animal-kind. Bethlehem replaces Eden as Christianity becomes more a religion of the city than of the countryside. And what happens in Bethlehem is that a child is born of a virgin. This story of the Virgin Birth specifically stands in contrast, first, with the Creation story in which woman comes from man; and, second, with the sexual sin attributed to Adam and Eve. Mary is pictured as one on whom God’s favor rests. She is God’s bride—faithful even as Eve was not—bearing God’s son without any sense of nakedness. Thus the angels tell the shepherds, “You have nothing to fear!”
What Luke implies by the story he tells in his gospel is not only that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled with the birth of Jesus but also that Jesus is, in St. Paul’s words, the New Adam (1Corinthians15:45). Thus the story of Jesus’ birth calls heavily upon the imagery of the Creation story in Genesis because the birth of Jesus is God’s new Creation event:
For a child has been born for us,
A son given to us:
Authority rests upon his shoulders;
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
It is, still in Isaiah’s words, “the zeal of the God of hosts” that has wrought this wonder of the first Christmas which we celebrate again tonight.
Even though we all know that the world we inhabit is full of sinful human beings—to say nothing of those who govern them—we also know that that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was born of Mary a little more than two thousand years ago, that his birth is figured in the Christmas story as a New Creation, and that that New Creation invites our participation. The fourteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart indicated exactly what that participation should be. For, though he undoubtedly knew as much about sin and stupidity as we do, he “told his congregation that each of them was a virgin mother charged with the responsibility of bringing the Word to birth.” If we are able to see ourselves as Eckhart saw his people, and if we are able to make his charge to them our charge too, then we need not be afraid. Indeed, we will have reason to rejoice and celebrate the Word, saying with the angels:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace among those with whom God is pleased!”
 Northrop Frye, Words with Power (San Diegeo, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 193.