A Christmas sermon by Nathan Nettleton (adapted from a sermon by Frank C Senn)
Tonight we begin our twelve day celebration Christmas, which may seem a little confusing to some, since a celebration with the same name has been raging around us for about six weeks now, and that celebration will finish tomorrow night. By the time we get to the second of our four Christmas liturgies, fading Christmas trees will be appearing next to the rubbish bins on the kerb.
Birthdays were a not a big thing in the ancient world, and Christians did not begin celebrating the birthday of Jesus until several centuries after his life, death, and resurrection. With no record of the date of his birth, the Christians calculated the time of his conception from a spiritual theory about the relation of the new creation to the old creation. The theory said that the conception of the incarnate God in the womb of Mary would occur at the same time of the year as the anniversary of creation, which they believed to have been at Passover time. That put the time of Jesus’s conception at the same time of year as his death, somewhere around March 25, they figured. Nine months later gives you December 25.
By coincidence, that put Christmas smack in the middle of the winter solstice festivals in the Mediterranean world. Bishops of the church in the fourth century no doubt figured that it would be good to keep Christians busy with Christian festivals to help keep them from getting tangled up in the pagan ones. Christian pastors mostly continue to think this, but pulling it off in a secular culture intent on observing the winter solstice (or here in Oz, the summer solstice) is at least as difficult to accomplish now as it was then.
What actually happened and is still apparent today was that Christian Christmas symbols merged with solstice symbols. The pagan fertility tree gets a star or an angel put on top of it, and the dominant Christmas figure is still Santa Claus, a reincarnation of the Nordic god Thor, the god of the hearth. Some Christians merged him with one of their saints, Nicholas, but Saint Nicholas never had anything to do with elves, reindeer and snowmen. That stuff predated him by centuries.
But the Christians had a secret weapon that gave the sun-worshipers a good contest: the stories of the Nativity in the Gospels: the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, and the visit of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel. John’s Gospel goes back to the beginning: the Word of God being with God before it became incarnate in human flesh and dwelt among us.
These scriptures inspired a host of prayers and songs that expanded into a whole season between December 25 and January 6. How Christians have treasured these stories, savoured them, made themselves hungry for their telling by fasting from them the rest of the year until in this season they could be told again.
The one word that Latin-speaking Christians sang over and over again in this season tells us the why and the what of this festival: That word was today—Hodie. It is a word that you may remember featuring repeatedly in some of the ancient Christian sermons I have paraphrased for this night in previous years, and it is the first word of nearly every line of the prayer sung before the canticles in the daily prayer services of the Christmas season in the Latin churches: Hodie Christus natus est. Roughly translated the prayer says:
Today Christ is born:
today the Saviour has appeared:
today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice:
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will to humans.
The word “Today” echoes through the songs that come down to us through the centuries. It has never meant: “On this day many years ago.” It means: “Today this is happening.” Right here and right now. An old song says, “Today true peace has come down to us from heaven, today the heavens drip honey upon the entire world.” How’s that for an image we can feel and taste? “Today the heavens drip honey.”
Can we make this word “hodie”, “today”, our own? Can we believe that it is today that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us? Can we let Christmas burst out from the next 24 hours so that its stories and songs, its today of peace and of heavens-dripping-honey, fill all the days until we celebrate the Epiphany and perhaps beyond?
Can we look each day at the stories in the newspapers or on television or on the internet and say to them, “Hodie”, today the word of God has rolled out a swag in our midst? Can we stand up in the face of wars that drag on in various parts of the world, where people are again forced away from their homes and babies are born and often killed while hiding out in rough shelters; can we stand up and shout “Hodie”, today God takes flesh in solidarity with your victims, and your deadly power is broken? Can we stand up in the face of callous politicians who, like Phillip Ruddock today, say their good intentions rule out any need for a proper apology to the likes of Dr Haneef who was falsely accused of being a terrorist and locked up in our name; can we stand up and shout “Hodie”, today a light shines into the darkness and the shame you have dragged us into is lifted? Can we stand up in the face of the violence and callousness and greed that leaves millions hungry and fearful and degraded tonight, and shout “Hodie”, today the salvation of the world is born and justice will be done on earth as in heaven. Can we look straight into the face of evil in our day—in all its guises—and shout out, “Hodie”, today you are finished, washed up, washed out in the waters that burst when a baby was born today, drowned in the waters that poured down baptism on us?
Let us keep the festival. Let us keep it in these weeks with the stories of Scripture, with the Bible open to Isaiah and to Matthew’s and Luke’s first chapters and to the opening page of the Gospel of John. Let us keep it with the Christmas songs and carols that now can be fully sung in our homes and churches. Let us keep it with the gifts of time for one another that the festival gives us. Let us keep it with feasting and merriment. Let us also keep it with some beautiful silence. And let us keep it by standing confidently, and affirming our faith in the God who takes flesh among us, today!