The Nativity of Our Lord


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »

or the Birthday of Christ, Commonly Called Christmas Day (December 25th) 

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten son…
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

The beginning of the Gospel of John, one of the best known and loved passages in the whole of Scripture, encapsulates the Christian paradox that we grasp the historical reality and the salvific significance of the incarnation while contemplating it as a glorious and wonderful mystery. This beginning links being in time with being out of it because the godly nature of Jesus is timeless whereas his human nature was in time; in the beginning was The Word and in time it was made flesh. The reading from Hebrews is concerned with the position of Christ when He returned to heaven from earth, exploring the motif of Christ the King. This leaves the humble Collect with the whole burden of the Christmas message that Jesus was born of “A pure virgin.” We may need to anticipate the average churchgoer’s sense of disappointment on Christmas morning, head full of stars, mangers and shepherds, being served with this esoteric fare but there are three factors we might want to explain, however briefly. First, in Reformation England Christmas was not a major church or civil festival and only became so in the late 19th and early 20th Century; secondly, and related to this, the Victorian carol transformed the common perception from high doctrinal seriousness to cloying sentiment; and, thirdly, although the doctrine of the incarnation has never been other than fundamental, there was then a far greater concern with the atonement, as witnessed in the Collect which does not designate us as the natural children of God but only children by adoption as the result of the acknowledged incarnation and implied crucifixion. There was, too, the additional factor of a more astringent theological climate, reacting both against an excessive late Medieval Marianism and a related devotion to angels and saints.

Hebrews, too, is deeply suspicious of angels. When these readings were compiled it was still believed that St. Paul wrote this letter but we now know it to have been written perhaps a century later which explains its concern with combating the ubiquitous heresy of gnosticism which sought to exalt the spirit at the expense of the physical, casting an odd and unfavourable light on the concept of incarnation. The text hedges its bets in a number of ways, the most prominent of which are: the emphasis on the heavenly life of Jesus before the incarnation and after the Resurrection; the emphasis on the transience of all physical things; and a use of grammar which, subconsciously at least, fuses the ‘persons’ of Father and Son.

It would be wrong to dismiss the major theological concerns already mentioned but how do they accord with contemporary sentiment? First, by contrast with an age which showed little concern for economic or social justice, once we have seen past the sentimentality of the baby, we are inclined to focus on the helpless Jesus as a symbol of all human poverty, injustice and helplessness. Secondly, we are more conscious of the Post Reformation history of Anglicanism whose wings might be characterised as respectively focused on the incarnation and the atonement, although there has naturally been—Anglicanism being what it is—a third tendency which is to emphasise and strengthen the links between the two: there is no Crucifixion without incarnation. Thirdly, it would be unrealistic for us to live our Christmas without any reference to the world in which we live. That being so, we are more likely than our Tudor and Stuart forebears to think about the relationship between the incarnation and society.

Paradoxically, what we might be less inclined to think about seriously is the very nature of incarnation. Our world is so materialist that we are often in danger of being driven into dualism, into the heresy of the gnostics; excess generates its own reaction. We might also be less awestruck by the image of light in John, surrounded as we are by artificial light to such an extent that our children may never know complete darkness. We are also less caught up with the imagery in John and Hebrews of a quasi physical place called heaven.

Nonetheless, these readings, in spite of their apparent misalignment with our times, contain the essence of who we are as Christians and how we should frame ourselves on one of the three most important days of our year. Jesus was born, died for us and rose from the dead and these earthly events were an infusion of our timeless God into the world. It would be hard on us to linger too long on the second of those three days (although the Christmas tree symbolises the union of light and death) yet Christmas without Good Friday is inconceivable and it must be a source of pain to all Christians that so many people come to church to celebrate this festival but do not stay the course, through Lent to Calvary and Emmaus.

Today it might be easiest, surrounded by the Christmas we have forged for ourselves in the secular world, to focus on the child who came to bring good news to the poor but unless we see this event within its infinite and mysterious context, we will only have grasped a fraction of its meaning. The sheer wonder of John’s two great proclamations, that in the beginning was The Word and that The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, can only be realised if we consider them together; that is his genius and our rendezvous with mystery.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How far are these readings a corrective to contemporary sentiment?
  2. How can the popular Christmas welcome be turned into Easter rejoicing?
  3. Are angels a help or hindrance to the Christian message?
  4. How do we explain the absence of Mary?
  5. Consider the symbolism of the Christmas tree and its decoration.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)