Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-end

The watchword for Advent is to keep alert, so here is a question to get our grey cells working on this grey morning. The text of which book of the Bible opens with the words, “The book of genesis”?
It is of course Matthew’s Gospel. (Genesis begins with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”.) However we can be excused for not knowing that, as in the NRSV translation that we use at Mass Matthew opens rather prosaically with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah”. But, actually, in Greek, the language in which the gospel is written, it says “Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ”. The book of genesis of Jesus the Messiah.
The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament is of course a different kind of writing to the gospels: under the language of myth and epic saga it conveys the truth about creation, and the origin and call of God’s people. But by opening his gospel with those words Matthew is catching our attention. This book, too, is about creation and the origin and call of God’s people. The genealogy that follows connects Jesus through 42 generations with Abraham, the founding father of the people of God in Genesis.
And today’s reading, which follows on, begins in a similar way. “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Again, what this literally says in the Greek is “the genesis of Jesus”, just in case we missed the reference first time round. This is a creation story. Of course it is, because Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. The Book of Genesis begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep, to bring all things into being.
Jesus, as St Paul says, is the new Adam, founder of the new creation, humanity restored and redeemed. This new creation is a direct act of God just as much as the first creation. God caused all things to be in the beginning, and God causes the human nature of Jesus to come into existence in the womb of Mary.
This is why Jesus was born of a virgin – and both Matthew and Luke, the only writers who tell us about the birth of Jesus, insist on this. This is not a dispute with biology. The virgin birth is only incredible if we suppose it is the old way of creation being carried on in an impossible way. But it is not. It is a new beginning, and therefore it is a direct act of God. The birth of Jesus is no more incredible than the fact that anything exists at all – both rest on God’s pure act alone, and have no other cause.
So the human nature of Jesus, the new Adam, is created in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Yet he is still one of us, he is “Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world”, as the Athanasian Creed puts it. “Adam” in Hebrew doesn’t only refer to the archetypal individual in the creation story. The word “Adam” also means “humanity”. The whole of humanity starts again in the birth of Jesus the new Adam.
This is possible because he who is born of Mary is not only a man, the new Adam, he is also God. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, has united himself to our human nature, so that all humanity can be united with him and in him. The Son has always been God; he became human in history in the womb of Mary.
By faith and baptism we are adopted in Jesus as children of God; we share in his redeemed human nature and so are saved from our sins; and because Jesus is one person both human and Divine, we share also in his Divinity. The Second Person of the Trinity invites human beings, mere creatures, to enter in and share the life he has with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
This is the heart of Christianity: what Jesus is by nature, we can become by grace. This is astounding and scandalous, to a normal way of thinking. If we have any conception of God at all, we know that God must be wholly other than what we are. We would not dare to suggest it at all, if it was not that scripture teaches it so clearly, and the Church has always believed it. The great saints of the early Church did not shy away it. “Man is a creature who has received a command to become God”, said St Basil. “God became a man so that man might become God”, said St Athanasius.
Yes, God is wholly other than what we are. The prophets spoke of him, indeed, but God in himself was wholly unknown to humanity, until he was found in the womb of Mary. Jesus is the meeting point. In him the divine and the human become one, and eternity enters history.
This is why the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus actually matter as events in history. They are not simply symbolic stories. Though they are of course full of theological meaning that the church will never exhaust, they have to be anchored in history.
Salvation is not just a nice idea. Salvation has entered the real world. The world of suffering and sin and death. The world of Aleppo, the world of babies abandoned on freezing bombed out streets. The world of the secret sorrows and sufferings that so many people bear and for whom Christmas would be torment if it were simply a cheerful nice idea. All this concrete world of tragedy and tears is really redeemed because God was really born in it as one of us.
Christianity takes the world very seriously, and takes humanity most seriously of all. Ours is not an other worldly faith, pie in the sky when you die. It is not a collection of moral fables to improve the reader. It is not interested in spirit alone, but in body and spirit, the whole reality of what it is to be human in the world. This concrete world, and our concrete lives, have been embraced by God in the birth of Jesus the God-Man.

Therefore this world matters. Our lives matter. Our bodies matter. The choices we make matter. In our modern world we ae often invited to think that the choices we make are matters for ourselves alone, mental transactions in the privacy of our heads that have no connection with the world out there.
Christianity turns that inside out. Everything we think and do impacts on the concrete world in some way or another. And as both our selves and our world have been embraced by God for redemption, the call of the Gospels is universal. Everything we do has Christ the redeemer as its ultimate object. Everything we do, in the last analysis, is either working with God’s purposes in the world, or against them.
The birth of Jesus the God-Man, the new Adam, calls us to take our part in the new creation, in which all human beings are honoured and valued – especially the outcast and marginalised. The birth of Jesus in this world calls us to care for this world with the same intensity and reality that he did, and in concrete ways. In working for peace and reconciliation, in protecting the environment, in healing the sick and being with the lonely and unloved.

There is nothing unworldly about the birth of Jesus. It is the message of hope and redemption for this world as it actually is. And that is reason enough to celebrate the feast, when we get to it, with great joy.

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