Christmas – 20009 – St. John’s, Goshen
Over the last ten days or so, I have been reading the Christmas sermons of St. Augustine. As you may know, he was the bishop of Hippo, a small city in northern Africa, for about forty years until his death there in the year 428. He was one of the great minds in the history of Christianity and wrote important works on the Trinity, on grace and freedom, on the Church, and on the relationship between the Church and the world (“The City of God”). He is the author of the first known autobiography, “The Confessions,” a celebration of the operation of grace in his life.
But he was first of all a pastor to his people to whom he preached on average probably two or three times a week. Hundreds of his sermons have survived, but they probably represent only one-quarter of the number he actually preached. It is a different Augustine one finds and hears in his sermons. Here he is the engaged Christian and pastor, preaching in a direct and accessible style, making use of his fine education in rhetoric and oratory to get his points across to people, most of whom were probably unable to read.
Christmas had begun to be celebrated as the birthday of Christ perhaps only fifty years before Augustine became a bishop, but he speaks of it as if it were an old and familiar feast. His Christmas sermons are brief and focus on the essential fact that the Church is celebrating: that God became man. In calling upon his people to praise and give thanks to God, he multiplies the paradoxes that the central reality expresses and implies. Listen to one set of them: “The maker of man was made man so that the ruler of the stars might suck at breasts, the bread of life might hunger, the fountain of living water might thirst, the light of the world might sleep, the way might be wearied by a journey, strength might be weakened, health might be wounded, life might die.” He several times spoke of the paradox that the Eternal Word of God became an infant, that is, one who cannot speak, and he describes him as a squalling infant, unable even to call his mother by her name. He contrasts the wealth and power that Christ enjoyed as God with the weakness and poverty of his human life. Christ’s divine greatness, he said, was not diminished by his human smallness, and in turn his human littleness was not overwhelmed by his divine majesty. And all of this for our sake! “See how much God has loved us!” Augustine exclaimed.
It is moving to read these sermons delivered sixteen hundred years ago, and to discover, across all those centuries and despite great differences in culture and society, a brother of ours and with him brothers and sisters in those who had the great blessing of having him as their pastor, a brother of ours in the Christian faith, celebrating what we are celebrating, rejoicing in what gives us joy, finding peace in the same message we have heard: that “a savior has been born to us who is Christ and Lord”; that “the grace of God has appeared”; that “the kindness and generous love of God our Savior has appeared”; that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
There are so many riches to explore on this great feast day. Perhaps before you leave church today, you might pick out one idea, or one image, one word or one line from a Scripture passage or from a Christmas carol, and at some point when there might be a lulll in the noise and bustle of the day, call it to mind or whisper it or speak it out loud, and be glad, joyful, in the Lord, and recall it, too, when the long day ends and as you close your eyes for sleep, giving thanks for the grace revealed in Christ and for the great, great privilege it is to have learned how much God has loved us, loves us still, everyone of us.