A Christmas Sermon

Robert Royal, Brad Miner, and Elizabeth McCoy

For the world Christmas day is the end of something, for the Church it is a beginning. Each December I am astonished that on the radio and in the stores Christmas music ceases immediately the day after Christmas, and already on the morning of December 26 the disc jockeys begin talking about Christmas in the past sense. Yet on the second day of Christmas the Church has just begun her celebration and will continue to sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” until Epiphany. Many Christians, and I hope you are among them, do not take down the Christmas tree and “break up Christmas,” to use a nice southern expression, until January 6.

To be sure, according to the Church’s calendar Christmas is the culmination of a period of anticipation we know as Advent. As in life, so in history and in faith, anything of great worth arrives only over time, after preparation, waiting, even yearning. And in that sense Christmas is the fulfillment, the end toward which the four weeks of Advent were heading. But the most important thing about Christmas is not that it is the end of something, but that it is a beginning, the beginning that bears in it another kind of ending. In the words of the book of Revelation and the medieval carol, “He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He.” One way, then, to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Nativity is to consider the ways Christmas is a beginning, for Christ, for each one of us, for his people the Church.

In Christ’s birth we see for the first time what human life can be. That is no small gift. Here was someone who was like us in every respect, yet he lived a life that was unlike any other human life, one that none of us is able to live no matter how determined we may be or how mightily we strive. Christ was fully human, born of a woman, flesh of our flesh, limited as any human being is limited, yet he was singular. Unlike the first Adam, he did not drive the Spirit away by what he did or failed to do; he did all things right and made it possible for the Spirit to enter into other men and women. As another early Christian writer put it: Christ’s life was “strange and wondrous,” for it was imprinted with the “power of a person who lived life in a new way.”

In some Christmas carols the wonder of Christ’s life is projected back into his childhood, albeit in a somewhat charmingly didactic way. Stanza 3 of the carol “Once in Royal David’s City” reads:

And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey
Love and watch the lowly maiden
In whose gentle arms he lay.
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

The celebration of the Nativity of Christ is also a beginning for each one of us. In a sermon preached on the feast of the Nativity centuries ago, Leo the Great said: “Today’s festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary. And in adoring the birth of our Savior, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life. For the birth of Christ is the source of all life for Christian folk and the birthday of the head is the birthday of the body.”

With the New Year only a week away, some of you may already be making your list of New Year’s resolutions. But for Christians the time for new resolutions is not New Year’s Day but the festival of the Nativity. Today is a day of new beginnings, of possibilities that far exceed the trivial matters that till up the lists of New Year’s resolutions.

Christmas is not, however, about resolutions, and Christian life is not a matter of willing to do something. It is about being given something, about receiving new life. Leo says Christ is the source of life for the Christian people. The biggest hindrance to growth in Christian life is to go it alone and to depend only on ourselves. It is as members of God’s people, not as solitary individuals, that we grow in faith and love. For the fellowship of the Church is a vehicle of God’s grace. The Christian people, no less than Christ, are a gift. We learn by example, from the lives of those who have gone before, the saints of old and the good and holy men and women who are in our midst today. Without the witness of others, with the example of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, we would be far less prepared to embark on the new beginning Christmas offers.

Let the world then bid good-bye to its Christmas tomorrow morning. Let the silly carols cease, let the artificial trees be put back in their boxes, let the tinsel and garlands be thrown into the trash, and let tomorrow, the day after Christmas, be just like any other day. For the Church celebrates another festival, a Christmas that is old yet always new, a celebration that recalls a day long ago but delights in the presence of Christ who is alive still. He is here among us in his holy body and blood, and he will go from this place with us to whatever beginnings we face tomorrow and in the weeks and months to come. Christmas is a day of hope, the promise that only life can give. Today Christ is born, today we are born anew, today the Church is filled with new life. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the Highest.

William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Among his many books are The Christians as the Romans Saw Them and The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. Today’s columns is a shortened version of his “A Christmas Eve Sermon.”