This year has taken a huge toll on our lives. Next to the millions who got sick, the rest of us have suffered emotionally and spiritually. We have lived in fear for ten months, and the anxiety will continue for many more months. Our sentiments of love and affection have been put on lockdown, and thus much of what is most precious in our humanity. Even Christmas, the most sentimental holy day of the year, has been observed without the usual good cheer and family gatherings.
But what about this sentimental side to Christmas? Do we sentimentalize Christmas too much? Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 2:13-23) reminds us every year that Christmas was not very sentimental when it happened. The birth was not warm and cozy, and except for a few shepherds and three magi, there were no people to celebrate and bring balloons and share cigars. It was far from sentimental. As a matter, all the forces of human power ganged up to try and destroy this child – and in the process destroyed many infant boys that had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Today’s Gospel passage is telling us to move beyond sentimentalism and treat the birth of Christ with the seriousness it deserves. The world is a mess, it always has been, not just this year. And it is because the world is a mess that God sent his Son to be born as a human baby.
But here is why we need to go beyond sentimentalism about sweet baby Jesus. Something far more profound and infinitely more beautiful took place that cold night outside Bethlehem. With that birth, God was saying that it is good to be human. It is good to be human, so good that God even chooses to be born as one of us! God is on our side. Forever!
Much of Christianity has settled for the sweet baby Jesus who asks nothing of us except gifts under a Christmas tree; a sweet baby Jesus who asks little of us; who doesn’t ask for any surrender on our part or even attention to the teachings of the adult Jesus.
Sentimentality and juiced-up emotions only get us so far in our human relationships. We become infatuated with someone but ‘fall’ our of love with that person at the first sign of their imperfect humanity. When we say “fall out of love” it’s a misnomer, because it was never love to begin with, just infatuation. Let’s not make the same mistake with Jesus.
We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, who asks little or no adult response from us. We then become content with “baby Christianity.” Richard Rohr used that phrase in something he posted last week, and it stayed in my mind. Baby Christianity. I have often felt that churches infantilize people, keep them in an infantile spiritual state where the powerful message of Christ does not challenge them and bring them into an actual experience of the ‘reign of God’. Βασιλεία του θεού. Yes, it’s Βασιλεία των ουρανών, but βασιλεία is not just a kingdom, something located in the heavens. The Greek word βασιλεία more immediately means the ‘reign/rule of God’ in our midst; the reign of God in our lives when we respond to the living presence of Christ, to his sharing humanity with us, to his being one of us, to his experiencing the full heights and depths of human existence. So when I reflect on the phrase “baby Christianity” I find myself asking this question: Babies grow up. When will ‘baby Christianity’ grow up?!
Our redemption began at the birth of a baby. Orthodox theology is sometimes accused of putting too much emphasis on the incarnation of Christ. And quite frankly we do emphasize the incarnation in our theology more than our Protestant and Catholic brethren do. It was sometimes asked in the old days of Christianity whether God would have been born as a human being if we hadn’t sinned. The answer was invariably given that God would still have become one of us. Probably the Cross would not have happened if there were no sin, but God desires union with us. God’s desire from all eternity was that we would be like God. We were made in God’s image and likeness from the very beginning, in the proverbial garden. The image and likeness is ours forever, an ever-renewing point of contact between us and our Creator and Redeemer God. And we eventually become like the God we love. That is the promise that nothing, not even sin, can take away from us. The birth of Christ made sure of that.
One of the most vivid promises is found in 1 Corinthians 15, where we read: Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power…. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
The culmination of God’s intention is to be united with us. God will be all in all – ἵνα ᾖ ὁ θεὸς πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν. God will be in everything, in everyone, and all will be united in God. And if there are other life forms and entities in God’s vast universe, they also will be part of that ‘all’ that Paul speaks of. Thus will be fulfilled the promise of the incarnation and the promise we read in 2 Peter that we will become partakers of the divine nature. So let us praise the newborn king. It truly is the beginning of our salvation and entry into eternal glory. Let us become citizens of the reign of God, right now, in this place, in our homes, in our places of worship! Babies don’t stay babies for long. Jesus did not remain a baby for long. Let us not be baby Christians longer than we have to be. Let us grow “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)