The Mystery of the Incarnation
When you come right down to it, Christmas is about the Christ child, the notion of God taking on human form. This Sunday, Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Josie Cressler consider how this concept might hold meaning for us as Unitarian Universalists.
Sermon: "The Mystery of the Incarnation"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs
Mysteries abound this time of year, don’t they? The mystery of how Santa knows what we want for Christmas. And how he delivers toys to all the boys and girls around the world in one night. And how he gets into your house to drop off his gifts and eat the cookies and drink the milk, even when you don’t have a fireplace and a chimney. The mystery of how he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, and which of his two lists you’re on.
We’ve pretty much solved the mystery that plagued human beings from the time they first looked up and noticed that the sun was rising lower and lower in the sky each day, and they feared that, one day, it simply wasn’t going to rise at all. But that must have been a scary thought for thousands of generations, who prayed every December that this would not be the year that they were cast into eternal darkness. Because they had no idea about the Earth orbiting around the sun, or the way the Earth tilts on its axis.
If we look at the biblical story of Christmas, mystery abounds there, too. The star that rises in the east. The angels that visit the shepherds. How Mary could give birth while still being a virgin. Why the three wise men brought such impractical gifts to the baby. But perhaps the greatest mystery of Christmas – of the Christian story of Christmas – is how this baby was at once both fully human – like you and like me in every way – and fully Divine. God come to Earth to save us all. Is there any greater mystery than that?
Now, let me say right up front that this is one of those mysteries, those miracles, that most of us Unitarian Universalists find pretty hard to swallow. Like the story of Jesus’s resurrection three days after he died, we’re hard-pressed to believe its literal truth. In fact, some of us here today are here today because we have come to reject these mysteries that, in some cases, were crammed down our throats from the time we were young. And it’s a foundational principle of our faith that we are to bring our rational, thoughtful and skeptical minds to matters of faith. It was Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing, in his authoritative sermon on Unitarian Christianity, delivered in 1819, who told us “…we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon [the Bible] perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths… We reason about the Bible,” Channing said, “precisely as civilians do about the constitution under which we live.”
The irony is not lost on me, that I, a former Catholic and now Unitarian Universalist minister, am standing up here inviting us to consider how we might put the Christ back in Christmas. And I suspect some of you are asking yourselves, “Why is Rev. Peter devoting an entire sermon to the mystery of how Jesus can be both fully human and fully God?” The first way I’d answer that question is that, as UU’s, I think we’re called not simply to discard things that seem to violate our sense of reason and rationality. In the case of Christmas, the phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” is particularly apt. While we can, and often do, secularize what to others is sacred because it simply doesn’t make sense to us, or isn’t physically possible, it might just be that we lose something important in the process.
There’s another reason we need to stop and wonder at this mystery, too. When we simply dismiss and discard mysteries like this one, mysteries that, for others, are central tenets, articles of their faith, we distance ourselves from those others. And we often do so in a not-so-nice way. “How can a smart, thoughtful, modern person believe such a thing” is a pretty dismissive statement from people who claim to be bridge-builders.
The third reason I think that we need to wrestle with the Incarnation is because it’s hard. If we simply dismiss faith claims based on what we consider to be impossible events, we’re in danger of embracing a faith of our own that’s superficial and grounded in negativity. One that’s based on what we don’t believe, rather than what we do. It’s easy to proclaim, “We don’t believe in the miracles of the Bible.” It’s a lot more challenging to engage with those mysteries and seek to discover whether they can come to hold some kind of meaning for us. Rev. Billy Graham once said that the particular mystery of the Incarnation is “the mystery over which the rationalists stumble, by which the humanists are offended and by which the world is bewildered.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Let’s dive in.
The best place to start is with the gospels themselves. What is it that they actually say? We know the familiar story found in the book of Luke, about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would give birth to the son of God.
“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’”
And then in chapter 2 of Luke, the angels appear to the shepherds and deliver the news: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The first chapter of the gospel of John, is devoid of the trappings of the Christmas story. No inns, no stables, no mangers. Here’s what it says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became 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.” And famously, John 3:16 declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” It’s important to remember that it’s the Incarnation that makes the Resurrection possible. Christ could not be the savior of all humankind unless he was God come to Earth as a human. So, while Easter is the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Christmas runs a close second.
“The Word made flesh.” “Son of the Most High.” “Son of God.” How can this be? How can someone be both fully human and fully God? One Christian commentator admits that “this is not a question that the Scriptures focus on” and admits that “some things remain mysterious.” Billy Graham tells us that “The natural mind is not equipped to grasp this truth.” But on this, as on many things, I beg to differ with the good Reverend.
What does it mean to be fully human and fully God? We all know what it means to be human, don’t we? So we don’t need to spend a lot of time on that. It means to be mortal and to be limited and frail and fallible. But what does it mean to be God, or God-like, or Divine? I will readily admit defeat and toss in the towel here, if your definition of God follows the traditional Christian meaning – that God is an eternal being – always was and always will be – that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. All-knowing, ever-present and all-powerful. Because, by that definition, you can’t be both fully human and fully God. It would mean that simultaneously you’d be both limited and unlimited in what you see, what you know, what you can do, which of course is impossible. But those “omni” qualities, to me, are not the defining characteristics of God.
And this is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Because the Incarnation asks us to consider, who or what God is to us. Who or what is Most Holy? Is God out there or up there, somewhere? Or is God in here? Or is it some combination of both? The Bible teaches that we are made in God’s image, and we can readily admit the danger of creating God in our own image. But is it possible for you to imagine that you are, that I am, that the person sitting on either side of you here today, is both fully human and fully Divine? That we – all of us - are the embodiment of God? That we’re God incarnate?
The God of my faith isn’t a thing, or a being, or an entity. It certainly isn’t a person. My God is a process. A process that is and that is always becoming. My God isn’t static - a “once and forever” God. My God is an evolving God, a growing God. A God that is part of everything and that takes part in everything. I think of God not as a partner in relationship with us, but as the relationship itself. To bring this down to Earth, God isn’t one of the people in a marriage. God is the marriage itself. The relationship itself. Think about it: When we are in a marriage, or any kind of relationship, we have power over it and it has power over us. We are a part of it and it is a part of us. It has a life of its own, yet it can’t exist without us.
So, this process that I call God, this relationship, exists everywhere. And everything and everyone takes part in its becoming, in what it can be and what it will be. And just as we humans have the power to grow and deepen and enhance our relationships, or to shrink, damage, and diminish them, so do we participate in the growing or the depletion of God. God becomes greater through our actions in and influence over our relationship with each other and the wider world. When we’re in right relationship with each other, God becomes more expansive. More sustaining. More life-giving.
In my understanding of the Holy, each and every one of us, and everything that is, was and ever will be, are all a part of this process. We frail and fallible human beings are as much a part of the Divine Dance, the process that is God, as are the rivers, the mountains, the moon and the stars. And just as with a dance, we are all dancers moving together through time and space, hopefully creating something beautiful. We are active participants in creating and sustaining God. We are a part of it and it is very much a part of us. We were a part of it before we were born and we’ll be a part of it long after we die. But for the time that we’re here on Earth as conscious, breathing, trusting, loving individuals, we are the visible, tangible manifestation of the relationship, of this unfolding process I call God.
This is the message in the Christmas story for me. Yes, God became flesh when Jesus was born. But God didn’t become flesh only when Jesus was born. The Incarnation occurred on that holy night two thousand years ago. And it occurred on the night you were born and the night I was born. It occurred last night and it’ll happen again tonight. It’s happening right now, somewhere, in this very moment. The Word became flesh, the Word becomes flesh. And bone and water and rock and light. God’s incarnation is all of creation itself, ever flowing, never ceasing. And we are a part of it all.
Merry Christmas, you beautiful children of God.
Today’s closing words come from Unitarian Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs. They are often read at UU Christmas Eve services, and we use them when we name and dedicate children here in our church: