holy cross sermon for christmas eve, year a, december 24, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Throughout my life as a priest, and probably for as long as I have made any kind of effort conscientiously to practice the Faith, I have made half-hearted efforts to extol the “true meaning of Christmas.” The matter is a complicated one because, of course, extolling the true meaning of Christmas has itself become a platitude of our culture, not unlike the related verse, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” (Acts 20.35). Of course logic dictates that as giving increases, receiving goes up proportionally as well, since every gift requires both a giver and a recipient. It doesn’t seem possible, then, to increase the world’s blessedness quotient by means of giving.

I have been haunted for years by this problem, particularly as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard relates it in his great book, “Works of Love.” There it is framed in terms of reciprocity and the perfection of love. Love, says Kierkegaard, is more perfect the less reciprocal it is. The logic of this insight leads Kierkegaard to the conclusion: “the true lover, the sacrificing one, the self-giving and in all things self-renouncing lover, he is, humanly speaking, the injured one, the most injured of all…” because his love gets him nothing in return.

Two thoughts related to Christmas arise in me as I consider this nugget of wisdom from my old friend, Kierkegaard. The first has to do with the identity of the “newborn King.” As we stand before the Christmas crèche, pondering the babe, lying in the manger, it behooves us to ask ourselves: “Just who is this child?” We are familiar with the contours of the child’s future biography – how, when he grows up, the wind and the sea and sickness and demons, and ultimately death itself will obey his command. But we also know that standing between this Mother and Child and the glory to which the Most High has destined them, lies the horror of the cross. Even tonight, as we celebrate his birth, we do so under the banner of his cross.

There is a wonderful triptych by the 15th century, Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, depicting the dead body of Jesus being taken down from the cross, as Mary swoons at its base. In the painting, blood from the wound in Jesus side has flowed down his body, under his loincloth, and down his thigh. Astute critics have pointed out how van der Weyden thus ingeniously connects Jesus’ final wound with that of his first wound: his circumcision on the eighth day after his birth. And the message of this artistic trope is that this baby will grow up to be the Crucified, Kierkegaard’s “true lover, the sacrificing one, the self-giving and in all things self-renouncing lover… humanly speaking, the injured one, the most injured of all…” Even now, at his nativity, that is the vocation of this “healthy little giggling, dribbling baby boy,” as Dave Matthews naively called him.

But it is more blessed to give than to receive. And the bigger the gift, and the more reciprocity is removed from its equation, the more blessed the giver becomes. And is this not the secret of Jesus’ superlative blessedness? Why is he here? Why was the Word made flesh? Why does he dwell among us? Why is he crucified? It is not for his own sake, but for ours. Were it not so, then his would not be the Name above every name, the Name at which every knee must bow. If it were not so, to paraphrase Athanasius of Alexandria, how could he drive away, and pursue, and cast down those false gods said by the unbelievers to be blessed and the source of blessing? “For where Christ is named, and His faith, there all idolatry is deposed and all imposture of evil spirits is exposed, and any spirit is unable to endure even the name, [but] even on barely hearing it flies and disappears,” (“On the Incarnation of the Word” 30).

We modern people have trouble reckoning with that kind of talk. But it is true. Consider that, despite the fact that our world now rejects the Gospel of Christ, it nevertheless enjoys the fruits of his labor. Idolatry HAS been banished. The old gods HAVE been torn down and cast out. No one today worships Zeus or Hera or Poseidon or Marduk or Tiamat or Pazuzu, the king of the southwest wind. No one wears their amulets or performs their rituals. There are a few nitwits here and there who pretend to, but they are on the margins of society, and their carry-on’s are little more than a joke.

It is the cross of Jesus that has broken their power. And they remain overthrown, even in this world of ours that is increasingly in the course of rejecting Jesus too. His work cannot be undone, for better or worse. The wells of the world’s heathenism remain poisoned. And his power comes through the impotency of the cross. Just as his majesty comes through the humiliation of the cross, and his blessedness through the perfect, un-reciprocal sacrifice of the cross.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Renew your consideration of the baby lying in the straw. This is his vocation. This will be his superlative blessedness. Every knee will bow at this baby’s Name. Every tongue will confess him as Lord. Because he has been born for us, to die for us, to ascend on high, to lead a host of captives, and to give gifts to men (cf. Ephesians 4.8).

o what then? If in order to experience the blessedness of Christmas – the blessedness, in the final analysis, of Christ himself – the reciprocity of our gift-giving must be removed, how can this be done? It can only be accomplished by giving in union with the gift of Jesus. When his gift becomes your gift – not in terms of something you possess, but in terms of something that you yourself render – then, you will share in his blessedness and exaltation. On this score, we must remember that the cross of Jesus is not only directed toward us, something given to us, but it is in the same moment something directed toward God. Jesus, on the cross, as everywhere, gives himself to God – a reasonable, acceptable, and living sacrifice.

The Book of Ecclesiasticus says: “When you praise the Lord, exalt him as much as you can; for he will surpass even that. When you exalt him, put forth all your strength, and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough,” (43.30).

In order for our give-giving to be perfected, it must overflow the boundaries of the universe. And the gift of Jesus to his Father is the only gift that does this. So our giving must be subsumed into that: into the gift of Christ crucified.

Let your life be informed by this dynamic: the worship of God in Christ, in union with the cross for which this child has been born. Let all your doings, all your gift-giving, all of your life, be subsumed into the cross. And realize, on a very practical level, that this is what the action we are about to undertake on this altar is all about. This action, this mass, and every mass, Sunday by Sunday, day in and day out, is about THIS. It is the means given to us by God himself to give in such a way that we may, with Jesus, be blessed.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply