The Joy and Mirth of the Incarnation
Christ is Born!
We gathered last week for a beautiful mass to share with God, His saints, and one another, in the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is born, a light is lit in the darkness, and the angels in heaven prophesy, ‘Peace on earth, good will to men.’ The wonderful part of being Orthodox is that the feast doesn’t have to end as soon as you’ve opened up the presents on Christmas morning. Instead, Christmas goes on in all its glory for 12 rich days, and the season of Christmastide lasts until Candlemass in early February.
Nowadays, when so many in our world think of religion, they imagine rules and legalism, perhaps suppression and denial. But doesn’t Christmas fly in the face of this image. The shining lights on the Christmas tree, the presents wrapped in gold and maroon, the spiced cider and joyful carols, and most of all the bright Midnight mass when the congregation sings “Glory to God in the Highest.” Christianity is as much about rules and asceticism as it is about feasting and celebration. The two always go hand in hand, and one could say that everything in the Church is essentially about one, great Feast. When we fast it is only to train ourselves how to feast. When we abstain from something it’s to prepare our hearts so that we can fill them up with much better things. Essentially, the entire Christian life is a life for reveling in the goodness and beauty of life, true life, in a way that brings us deeper in relationship with God.
Through the season of Advent we were asked to fast. Through the 40 days of Christmas we are invited to feast. But what does it mean to feast, after all? How is it that we can join into the spirit of the season?
The answer to this is given in the prayers and scriptures that we’ve sung this morning.
In the Introit, the choir chanted: “A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given to us; and the government is upon his Shoulder…his name shall be called the Angel of the great Counsel.
And following the Epistle they sang: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God: sing joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. The Lord hath made known his salvation: he hath revealed his justice in the sight of the Gentiles. Alleluia. Alleluia.”
These prophecies are thousands of years old, and yet, like a bell ringing in the hills they ring on, today no differently then they have for every generation behind us, ringing in the ears and piercing the heart of every man listening. “A Child is born unto us…the government is upon his Shoulder…The Lord hath made known his salvation.”
But the prophecies are merely whispers of a truth; Jesus Christ is that truth incarnate, and the New Testament is what fleshes out the meaning and power in the old. This morning, we heard two such scriptures about the Child born unto us, and each cast light on the significance of Christmas, but not in a direct way. In fact, they sound little bizarre when you first hear them.
The gospel and feast of the day is about our Lord’s circumcision. Luke 2, verse 21: “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
First we hear about the birth of a king and the salvation of the world and then we hear about a circumcision. The first is lofty and sublime, the second is coarse and fleshy. Through this past week we’ve caroled about angels singing in heaven and a tender infant wrapped in the arms of His mother. But today we celebrate something a little shocking and uncomfortable.
But the Circumcision of our Lord is no less beautiful and ennobling then anything else we might dream of on Christmas night, and it brings home the message of the Gospel.
What purpose did it serve for Jesus Christ to be circumcised?
Circumcision was the mark of a covenant between God and His people. It was a symbol that the Jews were set apart; a deliberate way of saying, “I belong to God and to God alone.” Circumcision, in a very concrete way, represents the decision to spend one’s life cutting away what is impure and clothing oneself with holiness; a stepping out of one flesh into another.
Now, there was nothing impure about Jesus Christ. He is God, and certainly didn’t need to be set apart or purified. Rather, His circumcision was for our sake. At each step of His life, our Lord fulfilled everything necessary for a man to be saved. He took on this challenge, to step into a new skin, and finally succeeded when every other man had failed.
And this is job as Christians. Christ is born and we must follow Him. He has given each of the job of becoming circumcised like Him – but in a new way (thank God!), in a spiritual way.
In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explains: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” (Romans 2:28).
Our Lord’s outward circumcision is a symbol of the inward Christian life – a dedication to God and an aspiration to cut off everything impure in our hearts and life: To step out of the old skin and into the new. The outward circumcision is a one-time deal, but the inward circumcision is a process. Christ was born in a manger, but the shepherds and wise men had a long journey to make to find Him. So, we too, share this adventure of becoming new men and new women.
The Epistle reading this morning ties everything together: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, (He has been born!) teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-16).
We asked before what it means to feast, and we’re given the answer right here. Feasting isn’t gorging; it isn’t drunkenness. These are abuses of the good things given to us. Feasting is a way of using the world around us as a one, great, shared feast with our Father in Heaven. To feast is to see creation not as an end in itself and a cause for lust, but rather as an opportunity to give thanks to God. Whether in our friends and family, in sunshine and sweet music, or a table full of meat and wine – in all and everything around us – let God be present. This is what it means to be “godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of our great God.”
To deny ungodliness and lust is not to deny life, but rather to start embracing it. To undergo a spiritual circumcision is not to cut off the good things, but rather those things that aren’t even worth a second thought. And to take on this adventure of dying to self and living in Christ is no less physical, palpable, and concrete then the very act of our Lord’s circumcision. God is with us in the flesh, and our relationship with Him involves the entire heart, mind, soul, and body.
So, through these 12 Christmas days, and into the rest of the New Year, this is our one task, to learn how to feast, truly, on the beauty and richness of our God.
I want to end now with a short and old poem, perhaps a silly verse, but profound in its truth about the incarnation, perhaps with no other purpose than to express the joy of Christmas, which is the joy of Christianity.
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus Domino!