Christmas Homily: An Incarnational Vision
Thick, creamy soup, tender, marbled steak, crusty loaves of bread, and pudding finished in chocolate. This is a sample of the sumptuous meal shared in Babette’s Feast, a Danish film about one night when a poor village gathers for a banquet. They had only known a life of austerity. Though once devout and friendly, this fishing community lost its salt; they had grown old and hard. Babette, a mysterious and foreign woman, exhausts her entire inheritance that night, to bring them together. The room was silent, but as the food melts in their mouths, a warmth spreads through them like the fire of Pentecost. For the first time in years, each turns and notices the other with love, they laugh together, make up for old grievances, and end the evening arm-in-arm gazing into the stars.
This iconic image says everything about the Christian life, and most of all, the meaning of Christmas. We are not here tonight to remember the birthday of Jesus, solely. We are here to celebrate the incarnation. We are here to join the entire cosmos in marveling at what happened that first Christmas Day. Not only do we marvel, we enter into it, embrace it, plunge into the wonder of the incarnation: God made man.
Jesus Christ is the second Adam.
“The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit…The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).
A fundamental change took place in humanity that first Christmas Day. Our humanity was shaken to its roots. What is humanity? It is everything that is part of us, our body, our blood, our families, meals, pleasures, traditions, and culture. All of this is our humanity, and all of this was taken and changed when divinity poured down onto earth.
We cannot even begin to comprehend the magnificence of the incarnation. When God became flesh, he gave flesh a second chance. A man can be a new man, a woman a new woman, in the truest way. A family can become more truly family. A meal, pleasure, and our daily routines, for the first time, can become holy, overflowing with life.
In St. Paul’s words, all humanity before Christ was nothing but dust. It was good for a little. It never really satisfied. The best of times left you with a hangover, and then you died and you were forgotten. Sadly, this is still the experience of so many in the world who are not a part of Christ. The spinning wheels and roaring machines of secularism are nothing but “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,” in Shakespeare’s words. In a diatribe about texting in cars, comedian Louis CK rants about people killing each other on the roads simply because they can’t bear to be alone. Why do we bury our heads in our phones, at such a cause, Louis wonders, “because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty – forever empty…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone.” The incarnation means there is another life.
Jesus Christ, the incarnation, the sacramental life, fills up that “underneath” underneath everything. Christmas is the end of mere materialism and mere spirituality. An idea that there is a material world here and a spiritual world somewhere else, that idea is shattered in pieces like broken glass on Christmas Day. The incarnation bridged the gap between heaven and earth. The incarnation poured heaven down into earth, down into our humanity, down into every part of your life.
In his Nativity sermon, St. John Chrysostom becomes euphoric.
“Behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing…All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven…What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment…For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked…a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.”
I began by describing Babette’s feast. Soup, meat, bread, and wine, what do all these have to do with Christmas? The story is a metaphor of our Lord’s incarnation. That mysterious and foreign woman sacrificed everything to bring the people joy. Christ, that mysterious and foreign Son of God, sacrificed himself when he became man, sharing with man all the glory of heaven. Before the banquet, the town had grown lost and bitter. The love in the food lit a spark in their hearts and opened their eyes. Before the incarnation, life was meaningless and empty. A life embracing the incarnation is a life as rich and aromatic as the richest meal.
What is Christmas for? Learning to savor the taste of your favorite meal, sitting down at dinner with your family or loved ones, enjoying the beauty of wind in the trees or a starry night – all of these are at the heart of Christmas. Is it not beautiful that we get to start out the New Year with Christmastide. We begin the year with this vision. God is incarnate. God is with us in everything. God invites us to see our whole life as a banquet. He has sacrificed everything in order for us to enjoy it, to be grateful, and to give back praise and adoration.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.