Emmanuel, Champaign–John 1:1-18; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; Isaiah 61:10-62:3
St Anselm was a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury who was, and continues to be, renowned as one of the major theologians of western Christianity. One of his treatises was simply titled Why God Became Man. At this time of year, that’s an appropriate question, one we do well to ask ourselves, over and over again, because, even though we know the answer—in part, thanks to St Anselm—we stand in constant need of being reminded. Why do we have Christmas? Why do we celebrate the Incarnation?
Here’s the deal: Even though God loves us, and created us in His image, and wants us to share the very essence of His life and being, we, as human beings, are alienated from God. We are cut off from God. There’s a gulf between us and God that makes the Grand Canyon look like a line in the sand. We are therefore unable to enjoy the life that God created us to have. We are incapable of experiencing our full humanity. Both as individuals, and as the human race, we are at cross-purposes with God. God belongs at the center of our being, but we have displaced Him—we have displaced Him with our own ego. We have bowed low before any number of “other gods”—gods like success, power, alcohol, drugs, sexual fulfillment—the list could go on. As we tell God in our corporate worship: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved out neighbors as ourselves.” Or—more dramatically, perhaps: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” Traditional Christianity labels this alienation between God and humankind as Sin—a condition each of us is born with that inclines us to make ourselves the measure of all things, and draws us away from the love of God. You can use that label, or not. Either way, though, it doesn’t change the reality.
“But wait, there’s more.”
Not only do we have a problem—the problem is getting worse! We can’t just hold onto the status quo, thinking that, while it may not be all we would like it to be, it’s not all that bad either. The status quo is slipping away. We’re trapped between steadily rising flood waters in front of us, and a deteriorating riverbank behind us. We have no hope, unless we can find a bridge across the gulf—the canyon, the chasm—that divides us from God. And only God can provide such a bridge, only God Himself can bridge the gap. We have no power within ourselves to meet Him halfway. Something must be done on our behalf. God must come to our aid, or else we are doomed to ongoing misery in this world and oblivion in the next.
Now for the good news: God has done something on our behalf. God has come to our aid. First, He gave us the Law—a knowledge of how we ought to live so as to counteract our inborn propensity toward Sin. The Law is written in nature. The Law is written on our hearts—it’s what we call “conscience.” And the Law is written—so to speak—“in stone”—that is, God’s Law made visible in His relationship with the particular nation through whom He chose to reveal Himself—the ancient Hebrews, the Jews.
The Law reveals the true nature and extent of our condition. The Law shows us just how wide the gulf is between God’s holiness—God’s completeness, God’s purity, God’s perfection—the Law shows us the gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness—our incompleteness, our contingency, our weakness and fragility, the fragmented and unfocused character of our lives. The Law is like a light shining on a dirty kitchen and revealing the cockroaches. They’re still there when it’s dark—in fact, they’re happier when it’s dark—but the light enables us to see them. We’re still sinners without the Law, but the Law enables us to see our sinfulness.
However, the Law is only a stopgap. It’s a tremendous gift because it shows us our problem. But it doesn’t solve the problem. We cannot throw the Law into the canyon and expect it to form a bridge that will take us to God. Something more must be done, and God has done it, and that’s why we have Christmas. God has thrown, not the Law, but Himself into the gap that separates us, and has completely bridged that gap. In the mystical language of the prologue to John’s gospel, we encounter our common faith that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The One whom we proclaim in our creed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” took human flesh, human nature, and dwelt, tabernacled—“pitched his tent,” literally rendered—the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In so doing, God completely associated Himself with us, implicating Himself with the human condition.
And he did so completely. This is what St Paul is getting at in his letter to the Galatians when he describes Christ as “born under the Law.” The Law is the perfect symbol for the entirety of the human condition, because it is the vehicle by which we see that condition clearly and fully. To say that Christ was born “under the Law” is to say that, in Jesus, God is thoroughly and unreservedly incarnate. There is no room for half-measures here. He does not bridge just half the gap—or three-quarters, or ninety percent, or whatever—and expect us to make up the difference. There were those in the early centuries of Christianity who thought just that. They asserted that God only appeared to be human in the person of Jesus, that the divine spirit of God dwelt within the human body of Jesus, but did not really become one with that body. It was just a vehicle. These folks were motivated by a commendable desire to protect the honor and uniqueness and utter holiness of God. But they were wrong. Their views are now known to be heresy. If, in His incarnation, God only partially covers the difference between us and Him, then all is in vain. If God does not become fully human in Jesus, taking our nature upon Him without reservation, then the gulf remains. We are still in our sins, and have no hope.
So do you see why we have Christmas? It is utterly necessary for our salvation. We are people of hope precisely because God did bridge the gap. In Christ, God completely participates in and shares human nature and human life. “Pleased as Man with Man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” As a result of this unspeakable generosity and love, we have the opportunity to walk in marvelous light, to share and participate in the luminous life of the Blessed Trinity, the eternal life of God. If there is ever any news that should motivate us to “Go tell it on the mountain,” this is surely it! The gap is closed. Heaven and earth are joined. God has become as we are that we may become as He is.
Alleluia and Amen.