In festa Natalis
O God, who makest us glad by the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
One of the readings suggested for Christmas Day is from the first chapter of Hebrews. It starts out with this introduction:
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”
How appropriate it is that we leap from the birth narratives of Christmas Eve to the full, exalted maturity of the Hebrews passage overnight! It is a pity that so few of us attend services on Christmas Day, thus missing out on sermons that delve into the mysteries and wonders of the Letter to the Hebrews. This magnificent theological treatise is not studied frequently enough in the lectionary, maybe because it is so profound that it is not easy to preach on its riches.
But something remarkable happens in the prologue to this letter, or long sermon, by an unknown writer. Over the weeks of Advent, we have been almost lulled by the sweetness of anticipation and the tenderness of Luke’s and Matthew’s narratives into thinking of Jesus the infant; Jesus, born poor among the poor; born of a woman. We are sensitive and emotional and longing to give gifts of love not only to those who are close to us, but also to those we have never met but only heard about. We are overflowing with generosity, food, and images of angels.
And here comes this remarkable, brilliant writer to remind us that it is the Christ of God we should be thinking of and worshipping, not a child in a manger. With breathtaking beauty and with alliteration of explosive consonants in the Greek, the writer opens his letter to remind us in one very long sentence that the one whom we have been anticipating through Advent and adoring on Christmas Eve is God’s heir, a reflection of God’s glory, God’s exact imprint, sustainer and redeemer. We have been singing about angels, but this writer assures us that the Christ is superior to the angels.
We have been kneeling before a mother holding a baby in her arms. We now kneel before the One who was at the beginning of creation with God the Creator.
We have no way of knowing whether or not this writer knew the prologue to John’s gospel, but the two here converge. These two prologues in all their earth-shaking faith and profound thinking encompass the grand theology of the Incarnation. They are not concerned with the earthly Jesus but with Christ the Son of God. They remind us how quickly the early Church arrived at a solid, complex, and intricate theology and that the people writing of the Christ possessed not only great hearts but admirable brains; they confirm also that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged early and was not a creature of the minds that gathered in Nicaea.
Reading these two prologues, we leave the comfortable realm of storytelling as found in the birth narratives and enter the complex realm of intricate theology. These writers have already moved from Jesus to Christ. It is the glorified Christ that matters to them, the same one who appeared to Paul and changed him and the history of humanity unto eternity.
The one who emptied himself to take on human form is on this day the One who was at the beginning with the Father, the one whose word creates with the Father and sustains all things. The writer of Hebrews sees the Christ as the one who, after he has made “purification from sin,” is sitting “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” both in control and in touch with those he has created.
We feel a tremendous sense of connectedness as this magnificent prologue and the one that opens the Gospel of John take us to the beginning of creation and lead us to this moment of acknowledgment – that the one who came as a helpless infant is the one who is superior to the angels, superior to the prophets and to Moses. He is the Logos of God, the expression of God; but above all he is the one who gave us power to become children of God.
Knowing all this, why should we be afraid? Knowing all this, why should we worry that Wall Street has fallen?
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” What is more important than this reality that we are urged to grasp onto on this Christmas morning? Nothing! The eyewitness of John’s gospel assures us: “We have seen his glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.” Let us then rejoice and be glad.