בראשית ברא אלהימ את השמים ואת הארץ (bereshith bara’ ‘Elohim ‘eth hashamaim we’eth ha’aretz) “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” All of us are familiar with the opening lines of the Book of Genesis. It expresses God’s presence and activity at the beginning of all things—the universe and time itself. It presents to us a powerful concept too often overlooked: that all of creation is a love letter from God to humankind. Where were you when you last read that letter? In an open field, captivated by the sparkling vastness of the night sky? On a deserted beach, awed by the power of a storm-enraged sea? Standing on a mountain with the whole world spread out beneath your feet? Or, maybe, soaring above the clouds, marveling at the complexity and diversity of the scene unfolding below you?
There are times in every person’s life when we’re stricken with awe and wonder. If we have any soul left in us at all, gratitude will well up inside us—gratitude for creation and gratitude to the Creator. At these moments, we’ve read God’s letter and we’ve gotten God’s message. In fact, God has only one message: enduring love. The ancient Hebrews described God’s love in two words, חסד (ḥesed) and אמת (‘emeth). Ḥesed is the love that a mother has for her infant child—tender and powerful. ‘Emeth is the fidelity that God has to his covenant with his people. God’s חסד ואמת (ḥesed we’emeth) means God’s enduring, faithful, tender love. The psalmist sings [Psalm 19:1], “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and God’s glory—the source of our awe and wonder—is his enduring love.
God’s message is constant through space and time, regardless of the messenger. It is constant not only in the wonders of creation but also throughout history, whether that’s human history or our personal histories. How often have we said to ourselves after a close call, “Whew! Somebody must be watching out for me.” We can even see the hand of providence in the most difficult of times when we were not only supported but came away with valuable life lessons that have served us well since.
Life is full of such lessons—big ones and little ones. As we grow in age, wisdom, and experience, we learn to see with our hearts as well as with our eyes. We learn to read the signs of the times and to recognize the many little coincidences—that aren’t coincidences—that fill our lives. God is speaking to us. God is never silent. When we don’t “hear” God, it’s because we’re not paying attention.
Have you ever heard God’s “still small voice” [1 Kings 19:12]? –that voice that “suggests” that you do the right thing when you’re hesitant, or “suggests” that you rethink an iffy choice? I have. It’s often obscure but, at times, the broadcast may come in loud and clear—sometimes startlingly so. And, every time we are conscious of these messages, we learn a little bit more about ourselves, the receivers, and a little bit more about God, the sender.
What does all this have to do with Christmas? Just everything. Last night, at Midnight Mass, we read the infancy narrative from Saint Luke’s gospel. We’ve probably heard it over a hundred times. Today, I want to focus on just one facet of that story. Luke [2:9-11] says, “The angel of the Lord appeared to [the shepherds] and the glory of the Lord shone around them…[and] the angel said to them, ‘Today in the City of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.’” Now, what is an “angel”? The Greek word αγγελος (angelos) means “messenger.” In the Scriptures, angels are the personifications of important—even transformational—messages from God. God’s message is manifested by his glory—that sense of the divine Presence that inspires awe and wonder. So, once again, God sends his powerful message to humankind and that message is enduring love.
But humans are recalcitrant. We can be thick, stubborn, and slow on the uptake. We misunderstand—sometimes deliberately. But God isn’t one to give up. He keeps trying to get through. Only God could come up with the ultimate solution: what if the messenger became the message?
Today’s gospel from Saint John echoes the words of Genesis we heard a moment ago: “In the beginning…” But John doesn’t begin the story with God’s creative activity. He starts out before that, with God himself, not as creator, but as communicator. “In the beginning was the Word.” We might say, “In the beginning was the Message and the Message was with God and the Message was God.” He goes on to say that all of creation was formed by this Message, yet even that isn’t enough. We humans were too dense to understand it all. So, the Message became flesh and dwelt among us. The Message of God’s enduring love was finally communicated to us in a way that we could fully understand in and through the baby born in the cave outside Bethlehem.
The power of God’s love is made manifest, but this power is unlike any power we’ve ever known. It’s the power of love that’s come exploding into our world, exploding into our story—our history—as a helpless, dependent infant just like us. God would transform our world and us with it with a quiet revolution—a revolution of surrender, even to death, death on a cross [Philippians 2:8]. There is no self-interest in God’s love. No self-seeking. God’s message of love, even before the beginning of creation, wants only one thing: and that is for his beloved people to learn to love the way God loves. God isn’t offended when we fail. God can’t withdraw is love. How could he? How could he withdraw the Christ child?
Christmas is the day we celebrate the coming of God’s Word—God’s Message of enduring love—becoming one of us. But Christmas is more than a celebration, it’s an invitation. We are invited not only to receive God’s Message of enduring love, but also to recommit ourselves to becoming part of that Message, and to share the enduring love we have received with one another. That way, we ourselves become part of the story, part of the gospel Message. We become part of Christmas.