[Homily preached at All Saints on 12/30/2018. Text originally published on John Mack’s blog]
“[W]e also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5b-6)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
When I was applying to seminary, a family friend, himself a devout Christian and onetime seminarian from a different tradition, told me that I was wasting my time. That MDiv will mean nothing when a mother asks me why her baby is suffering. Similarly, we might ask what the Sunday Eucharist, or chant, or our liturgical year, have to say to the dark and sad world we so pitifully illumine. On Christmas day, the homeless were still homeless, the sick were still sick, and the wet, warm, brown skies of our South Texas Christmas may have prompted a few of us to muse with the great Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer about the link between pollution and the death of man. In all this darkness, what is one day, or twelve days, of light? Our Epistle answers – we who were enslaved under the elementary principles of the world are freed. How? By Jesus, born of a woman, born under the law. The elementary principles, fundamentally, are sin and entropy; the spiritual death of humanity and the physical law that things fall apart. Against these two, we have no solution. Stars go black, civilizations crumble, people die. The first philosophers of Ancient Greece had a horror for change and time. Time meant the cosmos is unstable, you cannot step into the same river twice. Socrates proposed an escape – the cosmos is falling apart, but beyond the cosmos is a realm of changeless Truth. By meditation and virtue, one could eventually escape the dying world and enter into Truth. But this escape is nearly impossible. In one of his dialogues, he asks, “Do you think anyone, knowing something is wrong, does it anyway? I do.” We are bent toward sin, and we are subject to entropy.
Yet many think Socrates’ solution may seem like a precursor to the Christian Gospel. And yes, a Christian can learn a lot from Socrates. But fundamentally, the best thing Socrates offered Athens and us is an escape plan. The biblical Gospel is not an escape plan. The Father, the Lord of the Cosmos, Yahweh, sent his Son to become a human, born of a woman, born under the law. Jesus was born into our human condition, in all things but sin. More, he was born under the law, born into a promised people who had long waited their anointed one.
Our Gospel begins; “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” This sentence closes echoes the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel; “The genealogy of Jesus Christ.” The word translated as genealogy is “Genesis.” This is, yes, the same word as the title of the first book of the Bible, the one in which God makes the world and establishes the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Gospel is not an escape plan, it is a Genesis account, an origin story, of the new creation. But this new creation is not made ex nihilo, or out of nothing, rather, it is a marriage of two things, the entropic, dying creature, humanity, and the eternal, glorious Word who spoke all things into being, the Son of God.. Thus, while this morning’s Gospel reading tells us of the birth of Jesus, it is also a wedding story about the wedding of the Virgin Mary.
In 1:18, Jesus’ birth takes place thus; his mother Mary, a virgin of Nazareth, is betrothed, promised, to be married to Joseph. Before their wedding, she is found to be with child. While Matthew assures us that Mary’s virtue was intact, the child was from the Holy Spirit, we learn that Joseph naturally assumes Mary has done wrong. Yet, he is a just man and resolves to divorce her without scandal. So the marriage is off. Much is at stake here. Mary will bear this child, but without Joseph’s guardianship, or Davidic lineage. Mary needs Joseph, not to be Jesus’ father, but to make Jesus a full son of Israel. So, the Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and tells him the truth, Mary has conceived not by man but by the Holy Spirit. The son in her womb will be Jesus, the promised savior. As Isaiah the prophet foretold, the sign of the Lord’s favor to Israel is that the virgin (parthene) shall conceive and bear a son. It is important that this pregnancy is the sign for by it we know that the son to be born is the living expression of all God’s favor to Israel. He is the promise that Hell shall fail for God is with us (Isa.8:10), the sign that the desert shall bloom as the rose (Isa. 35). He is not only a sign that God is with us, he is Immanuel (Isa. 7:14), God with us, God one of us. The Son in Mary’s womb is he who spoke the Cosmos into being, spoke the covenant to Abraham, the Law to Moses, who led Israel in the wilderness with fire and shade, who gave Israel water from the rock, and fed Israel with bread from heaven, who sat enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant and filled the tabernacle with his presence. Jesus is all of this and so much more, but all Matthew tells us is “This child is from the Holy Spirit, his name will be Jesus, and he is a fulfillment of this saying of Isaiah.” Instead of telling us all about who Jesus is, Matthew is primarily interested the wedding of Joseph and Mary, and the very important question, was Mary a virgin?
The significance of this question is often lost on us. The creeds have us affirm that Christ was born of the virgin Mary, but do we know why it is so important that Jesus be born of a virgin? It is not uncommon for Christians to dispense with the virgin birth. Even those who affirm it have a difficult time knowing why. We may even share an assumption regarding Mary – she is the womb which held him, hers the breasts he sucked. What more does she matter? The early church had a very different attitude. They insisted she was Theotokos, Mother of God. Want to start a fight? Go into a room full of Presbyterians and say, “The Council of Ephesus called Mary the Mother of God and said anyone who disagreed was a heretic.” Why call her this? Not because there was no God before there was Mary. The All-Holy, Glorious, Eternal, Ever-Blessed Trinity did not zap into existence in the womb of a near-Eastern virgin around 5 BC. But this Virgin had an utterly unique relationship with God. In her, the Lord of Hosts pitched his tent, literally, she is his tabernacle.
And here, we come to paradox. On the surface, Matthew is telling us how Joseph and Mary got married. But the real wedding has actually occurred before the story begins. Mary is already pregnant. Matthew puts us Joseph’s position. We do not know everything that is going on, we know this child is real, we know that Mary is still a virgin, we must therefore assume that the Baby is of the Holy Spirit. But here is the most exciting fact. By telling us only the barest narrative, Matthew has given us a view into the nature of the Gospel. To appreciate this view, we, like Matthew’s original audience, the Jews of Palestine, must read this wedding-nativity story in the light of the Old Testament.
Jesus is the assurance that out of death, God will bring life. Mary’s virginity is not sterility but is fruitfulness. In the face of apparent childlessness God makes the barren woman to be a joyful mother of children (Ps 113). He gives children to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Ruth, and Naomi, and Elizabeth. In the face of grief, personal sin, or what John Paul II called “The culture of death,” the Lord brings life, and joy for a Son has been born. In his grace, and grace means gifting, he supplies Israel with free, undeserved bounty. He feeds her in the wilderness with manna, sustains the prophet Elijah with bread and the widow of Zaraphath with flour and oil. He promises Israel that they would eat what grows of itself (Isa. 37:30). Long before Christ, when wandering Israel first came to Canaan, they ate a Passover Feast from Canaan’s fields and orchards, and this before the gates of Jericho, in the enemy’s shadow. He prepares a table in the presence of our enemies, and our cup overflows.
The Virgin birth of Jesus is a theological necessity, because we must know that Jesus is the Son of God and no one else. But more than this, the Virgin Birth tells us of the boundless grace of God. He gives us everything, that is, himself. He gives of himself, freely entering into the decayed human world, becoming one with it, suffering and dying for it, redeeming it by his endless life.
The world is sad and dreary. Our Christmas trees and icicle lights are pretty, but of themselves they will not lighten the ever-darkening world. But the True Light has come. In darkness, before the enemy’s walls, God has come, and become one of us. In the womb of Mary, parthene Theotokos, in the cradle, on the cross, in his resurrection, and today in the Holy Communion, we encounter the God of Grace and God of Glory. The Lord of the Cosmos is one of us now. The God who played with the moon and stars played with the hay of the manger, as G.K. Chesterton said. Lancelot Andrewes marveled that the Word who spoke the world into being is a baby unable to speak a word. When the world wonders why the Church can audaciously celebrate in the midst of sorrow and sin, we must point to Jesus. Because Jesus is our Lord, we can celebrate. Jesus is a man, and remains Man on our behalf as he stands in the presence of the Father, offering himself for us. Our suffering has become his burden. When a mother asks why her baby is suffering, we know that Jesus is also suffering. When a homeless man is abused, Jesus is abused. But, the Church is right to celebrate, even to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas, because Jesus transforms the darkness of the world into light. He makes a cattle trough into the bed of new life. He makes the grave a bed of hope. He makes the womb of a virgin the ground from which a new Adam is formed. He is the Divine Assurance that sin and entropy are not the last word, that sin is forgiven, death undone, that out of a desert, God will make springs of water to flow, and they shall flow until the glory of the Lord fills the earth as the waters cover the sea. Amen.