Hope in humanity: the secret of the incarnation

Isaiah 62.6-12

Psalm 97

Titus 3.4-8a

Luke 2.8-20

Christmas Day 2022

Hope in humanity: the secret of the incarnation                             ©Suzanne Grimmett

Christmas is the day when even the most hardened cynics among us might let cracks appear in the wall of their jaded view of humanity. Christmas is the day when we have that sense that maybe all of our world-weary assessments of the human race are actually disfiguring the hopeful possibilities of our kind. While we might come here on Christmas Day to connect with the presence of God in this story of a babe born to a humble family and announced by angels, the wonder of Christmas is found most profoundly in what it says about our humanity.

It is part of the mystery of Christmas that we hold in tension the astonishing revelation of God taking up residence in a human body, with a human family, and the parallel truth that we are to be bearers of God in the world. The letter to Titus expresses this, saying that through Jesus we are to become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life”. We are mistaken if we take this to be just about going to heaven when we die. It is rather an invitation to a life where Christ is born and lives in us. We are called not to understand God so much as to embody God- this is the promise and challenge of the incarnation. As the great 4th century theologian and doctor of the church, Athanasius of Alexandria said, summing up the meaning of the incarnation, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” But rather than seeing this as a means by which we transcend our broken humanity, the God who has come to us offers a way instead for us to fulfil what it truly means to be human.

The great Hindu peacemaker Ghandi asserted that “Jesus belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world,” for the message of peace which he brings: ‘Love God, love your neighbours, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.’ Theologian Walter Wink has said, “We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness.”[1] The human species has faced trauma and great challenges to survive and thrive on earth, and our scriptures tells us the stories of our failures as well as our joys as we seek to connect with the love that is greater than ourselves. Throughout this long history we have been haunted by good dreams and touched by that life which animates every moment when we connect with each other and all that is good within us. We are still in a process of becoming, but our instinct to honour what is most human in us is surely what we feel when we gather on this day to wonder at a vulnerable baby, a poor family and a God who seemingly will stop at nothing to help us on the way to our full humanity.

But there is a feeling of poignant longing in Christmas too, as we glimpse what we can be, and recognise a distance between that and who are now. We might look back on a year where Russia invaded Ukraine, where women’s rights were reduced and violated not only in Iran and Afghanistan but closer to home and where even as the world population passed 8 billion, the wealth has been even more concentrated in the hands of a few. This can fuel a despondency that in turn feeds a cynicism that does not like to hope too much lest we are disappointed. The problem is that when we look through such a lens, seeing the worst in one another can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

It is to this reduced vision that Christmas speaks with great power. We gather to hear again the stories of a sky exploding with angels singing Glory to God in the highest and offering the promise that we are neither forgotten nor forsaken and salvation is coming. “Singing”, says the Benedictine, Mark Patrick Hederman, is a way of proclaiming a better world, of refusing to give in to the grimness of the past.” Just like the song that surprised those unsuspecting shepherds, praise erupts out of the most unlikely places, proving that life and hope can never be contained. 

Hederman continues;

Singing initiates a welcoming swell towards creation’s new direction– a ripple from the edge.

Such a possibility opens for us from every situation, 

of whatever kind.

Such praise comes at the end of our altercation with God

It is not escapism. 

It permits us to live beyond hurt and trouble,

not because hurt and trouble have been denied,

but because they have been fully faced.

Singing is sorrow inoculated against despair.

Wherever the Spirit wants us to move is where we belong.

One tiny sign, hardly noticeable, lets us know that the rescue operation is underway.

The song once erupted from a young Irish rock band in 1981 with an unlikely Latin lyric, Gloria in te domine, Gloria exultate. Bono, lead singer of U2, while dealing with an internal crisis of what following Jesus might look like for the band, came to the conclusion at the time that while he could not change the world, he could change the world in himself. His Gloria broke out in some ways at an end of “an altercation with God”, where the band chose to continue their vocation while recognising the contradictions of such a life, even though it was a life where they belonged. 

What I find interesting is that in his recent memoir, Bono has found the reverse of that conclusion to be true; that he can change the world but it is harder to change the world inside himself. Sometimes as we get older we recognise the same old patterns of self-interest, and realise that by ourselves we can achieve little… but if we entrust ourselves in our frailties to one another, we can become part of creation’s rescue operation. In the tension between where we are now and where we would like to be, there can be an eruption of praise when we recognise that we are not alone…have never been alone…because God surrendered to the human life. In all our vulnerability and failures, we are therefore now entrusted, like Mary, to be God-bearers, seeing the light of Christ in one another and together setting about healing the world.  

Mark Patrick Hederman concludes;

Whatever life is now, it can be altered.

We raise our voices to the better future – the world as God would have it be.

We can only create that world if we not only put our hand into the hand of God, but into the hands of one another. May this Christmas be for you not only a renewal of faith in God but a revival of your faith in humankind. May your voice be raised in harmony with the songs of the angels singing Gloria, because you know deeply the truth that God is with us. 


[1] [2] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man