A Christmas Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
December 24, 2016
Lections Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
The extraordinary Nativity of the Christmas story is set by the church in the familiar experience of family life. We easily picture Bethlehem, a small town along the road, where a young woman and an older man arrive on foot at dusk, planning to stay the night at an inn. Instead, we go with them out to the barn and breathe in its smells, as the woman is made comfortable on a bedding of hay, and a midwife arrives to deliver her baby. We hear the noisy animals being watered and fed and the chatter of the day laborers who took care of them and stop to admire the newborn child. We feel the cold and want to hold the child in our arms. Outside, the night’s darkness is brightened by countless stars in the sky.
The simplicity of the Christmas story allows us to imagine its details and get to know its characters: Mary, the young mother, Joseph, her husband, and Jesus, the infant son. The three make up an ordinary, but unique family; for as we know, this is the holy family. The child who spent nine months in his mother’s womb is also the God who created the universe, and he has come to live with us. Let us consider in turn each character.
Mary the God-bearer
When I was a child, and I wanted something I thought my father might not give me, I would go to my mother and tell her what it was and why I wanted it. Then I would say something like, “Please talk to Dad and see if he will give his permission.” And often, after my mother talked to him, I did get permission for what it was I asked for.
We all have in common one sure thing: we all have a mother. A few of us, for one reason or another, might not know our birth mother; we may have been adopted or live with our stepmother; and many of us, who are older, have lost our mother, to old age, sickness, and death. Yet in a heartfelt sense, our mothers are always with us, and one of the first things we learn in church is to honor our mother. Honor is a combination of love and respect. When we honor our mother, we honor her unique role in our life.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is given a unique name to identify the role she plays in the birth of her son: she is called Theotokos, which means God-bearer. In an old prayer, Mary is honored with these words:
“It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure
and the Mother of our God; More honorable than the cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
without defilement, you gave birth to God the Word;
true Theotokos, we magnify you.”
We address Mary in this prayer as a living presence. Traditionally, the church’s regard for Jesus as “more glorious beyond compare” than the angels is extended to his mother; when her earthly life had run its course, Jesus is depicted as taking her directly to heaven, to be at his side, because he honored her greatly. And just as I used to ask my mother to talk to my father for me, we can talk to Mary and ask her to talk to her son for us. We know from the gospel story of the Wedding at Cana, when Mary asked Jesus to do something, he did it! How marvelous for us that Mary, the Mother of God, is also the Mother of his Church, and we can turn to her for help with all our needs.
Joseph, Husband and Saint
Often our biggest needs are related to the family. We learn in church to honor not only our mother but both mother and father. My impression is that many people, myself included, have more difficulty honoring their father than mother, and many traditions that the church established regarding Mary did not carry over to Joseph. We know less about him, and he seems to have died happily before Jesus began his public ministry. The last we hear of Joseph in the gospels, he is making the Passover Visit to the Temple, and Jesus is twelve years old.
The little we do know, however, attests to Joseph’s saintly character, and he is indeed an example to us of fatherhood. In a rigid, patriarchal society, Joseph does not lord it over Mary and Jesus, whose care he is entrusted with. Rather, he is guided by humility. He does not accuse Mary, and when he suspects her of infidelity, he is willing to bear public shame for her sake. He educates his son and passes on to him his carpentry trade. In other words, Joseph fulfills all the responsibilities of a husband and father in a faithful manner, trusting God in all things.
The Infancy of God
As we have seen, the infancy of Jesus is not unlike our infancy. The figures in a crèche, like the doll in a crib under a tree, accurately convey the likeness of our lives to the greatest of all mysteries, the life of God incarnate. From the moment Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, he was fully human; he played, studied, worked, ate and slept just like all the other children in Nazareth, his childhood home. Yet he was different, because in everything he said and did, he conformed to the original image of a person; the same image every other person born of a mother transgressed.
Christmas is the time we tell the story about the birth here on earth of the Divine Person, who made heaven and earth, and who came to live with us as a human being, to teach us his intentions for our lives; from this confluence of the divine and human, we adduce that personhood is the very nature of reality. The holy family reveals the pattern for family life, because the child who is born in the little town of Bethlehem is the incarnation of the Creator God who chose to become fully human by being born to Mary and Joseph. Parents, by following the example of Mary, the Theotokos, and Joseph, Husband and Saint, and children, by honoring their mothers and fathers, fulfill God’s intentions in their ordinary, daily lives. The Christmas story becomes their story, because God is with them.
And all the people said, Amen.