On the Feast of the Nativity
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Christmas Eve - December 24, 2012
In the Western Rite on Christmas Eve the Prologue from St. John’s Gospel is read. It is a good choice for this night. Do you remember it? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…" "En arxn ain ho Logos…" John equates Jesus, the Son of God, with a word that came to mean the very principal of order and knowledge behind the whole of the cosmos. He does not begin as do Matthew and Luke with an infancy narrative, but shoots right to the heart of the matter.
The incarnation cannot be relegated to a simple historical narrative. There is a deeper significance to Holy Scripture that the early church was much more open to than we are. We are much too tied to the historical perspective in our Western ways of thinking that we often miss altogether the deeper things.
For example, in the two Gospel infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke we see not one animal listed as being present in the cave where Jesus was born. Not one and yet our carols speak of them and our hymns speak of them not simply because in a cave for animals there must have been some. There is more to it than that.
In the earliest carvings on sarcophagi of the Nativity of Christ from the second and third centuries we find certain animals pictured, namely an ass and an ox. No sheep though! It is significant to note also that the Magi were present in these carvings all wearing a particular kind of pointed head-gear. Now, here we go! The headgear was that of the priests of the sun-god Mithra. So the priests of Mithra are coming to worship the Christ child. The early church carver must have known this. The cult of Mithra was in full swing at the time.
Secondly, the ox and ass were pagan symbols. The ass was associated with the Egyptian god Set and the ox represented the Egyptian god Osiris. Was this intentional? It may well have been since the details are so particular and peculiar. The early Christian theologians, iconographers, and thinkers were not afraid to connect the birth of Jesus with a more universal revelation – so cosmic that the whole of humanity and its religious metaphors were drawn to the cave.
Does it mean that the Church became pagan? Not at all. The Church at her best is like a bee gathering nectar from flowers that bloom not only in Judah and Palestine, but in every place where men and women have pursued the search for Truth, Beauty, and Meaning. On Athos there are icons of the great Greek philosophers, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Why? Because they are seen by the wisest of the Fathers as precursors of the Gospel. This is the Church’s way of looking deeply into and honoring the Unlimited and Unbounded mercy of the God whose birth in the flesh we celebrate tonight. He did not leave humanity in all its diversity orphaned. He has been speaking to all and everyone who was willing to hear and who expressed in the forms of their specific culture the Truths they heard.
Olivier Clement put it best when he wrote, "Not one blade of grass grows outside the Church." It is we who place boundaries around God more fitting more to our own comfort level than to the Truth.
When Christ was born of his Virgin Mother on this night in Bethlehem of Judea all the ancient myths of incarnate gods, born in caves , and of virgin mothers from the time of the Sumerian and Egyptian, to Greek and Indian mythology came true in history. The coming of the Logos Incarnate was prophesied by prophets and poets from all over the world. The thunder of God’s voice from Sinai and from wherever he spoke throughout the panoply of human history was and is heard by all people of good will and open hearts, who are searching for Truth and Beauty in this world wherever they are. "All good things come from God," we proclaim. In the Baptism service we say that "this is the Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world." Are we among them is the question we must ask ourselves. Of course we are, but are we open? Are we listening? Do we care?
Tonight is a very special night. We have come, each of us, for many reasons. Symbolically we kneel in the cave at the manger with the lowly shepherds, the Mithraic priests, the ox of Osiris, and the donkey of Set, and with angels from heaven. Perhaps we don’t even know why, but it doesn’t matter.
Peter Berger, the eminent professor of Sociology from Boston University, remarked, "If Christianity is true, then the universe is in the final analysis a vast liturgy in praise of its creator. It was created for this purpose and it is this purpose. The liturgy includes all human beings who have been brought to this understanding and it must also include those who praise God under strange names."
God knows that we have also brought our "gods" with "strange names" - our attachments, our egos, our agendas – so we find ourselves in good company. Good, because even though we use the "right words" all of us are guilty of idolatries, but even they, as with that of the Magi, can lead us to the Truth if we are open.
Our prayer is that we become open enough so that at some point we might be willing for God to reveal himself. But first he must fill us in on the particular journeys our own lives have taken. If we would take time to pay attention, we would have much to learn. Self-knowledge is the beginning of enlightenment.
I recommend that sometime when you go home on this often hectic night, you find some time and a place to sit quietly and listen. I found a beautiful poem by a great mystic poetess from Kashmir whose name was Lalla. When I read it I thought immediately of the beautiful serenity of Christmas Eve. I offer it to you by way of closing.
O my Lord, the stars glitter and the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors and each lover is alone with his love.
Here am I alone with you.
Be with God with a cup of cocoa (don’t forget the marshmellows), or coffee, or a good single malt, but do take some time tonight to be alone with God. Don’t be afraid of being alone with Him. That is what He longs for. That is what your soul longs for.