By Nathan J. A. Humphrey
The Christmas Eve homily is always something of a conundrum for a preacher. I cannot assume, after all, that we are all here for the same reasons, and some of us might rather be anywhere but here. If it’s any consolation, I am glad you are here, because your presence on this night is a great gift, so thank you for being here, one and all.
Not everyone in this room believes in the Christmas story, and even some of us who do believe in it don’t know quite what to make of it. One agnostic scholar I read this past week admitted that he didn’t believe any of it, but then he wrote,
But they are beautiful stories. Angelic visitors, heavenly inspired dreams, miraculous works: a virgin conceives and bears a son! There are shepherds and wise men and wicked kings and murdering soldiers and near escapes; tragedy and salvation. The stories live on, with or without my faith in them…And the meaning of the stories continues to touch me. This is a season of giving: God giving his son, the wise men giving their gifts, the Son giving his life, and his followers giving themselves.
I thought that rather poetic. We could leave it at that, couldn’t we? Christmas is about giving. There. The end, short homily, thank God that’s over!
And yet. While it’s true enough that Christmas is about giving, what strikes me is that this person is touched by the “meaning” of the stories not because they are true, but because they are beautiful. And thus he derives a moral from them: give of yourself.
This is all fine and good, but there’s a deeper question here, one that the English theologian Theo Hobson takes on in a 2007 newspaper opinion piece. He writes,
It’s customary for atheists and agnostics to call the nativity story “a beautiful myth”. What they mean is that the story is beautiful, but no more. It changes nothing; it is not really important; only the gullible could confuse its beauty with truth. It’s beautiful but empty, inconsequential.
I think this position is deeply flawed. It won’t do to call [Christmas] carols beautiful but meaningless. For their beauty is obviously related to their content. Their power derives from the particular story they tell: the birth of a baby which is also the arrival of total hope for the world, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. The beauty of this myth exceeds aesthetics. For its beauty is not neutral but is tied up in an assertion of value. To respond to this in strictly aesthetic terms is inadequate. And perhaps somewhat cowardly: it puts religion at arm’s length by turning it into an aesthetic phenomenon.
Christmas seems to me the refutation of the idea that beauty and truth can be separated. The beauty of the Christmas story, and of the festival, is more than beauty. Mere aesthetics cannot account for it. This sort of beauty involves you, changes you, exerts a sort of authority over you, like the face of your beloved.
Now isn’t that beautifully put? And it’s important to note that, though Hobson doesn’t make the connection explicit, he links truth and beauty with goodness. The meaning of the Christmas story is “tied up in an assertion of value.” In other words, it means something not just because it is beautiful and not just because it conveys timeless truths, but because these truths are good for us to believe. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful are interwoven into an inseparable whole in the Christmas story, whatever you may make of its details.
“This sort of beauty involves you, changes you, exerts a sort of authority over you, like the face of your beloved.” When we encounter something beautiful, if the truth it conveys is merely agreeable, we can enjoy the experience and walk away from it unchanged, as I’ve done a thousand times when I visit a museum to enjoy the objects on display there.
But every once in a while, I will see something so beautiful, so true, and so good that it changes me. It exerts a sort of authority over me, like the face of my beloved. And that, my friends, is what Christmas can be for you. Not simply agreeable, but life changing.
Now by “life-changing” I don’t mean that I decide to change my life because of it, but that it changes me whether I want it to or not. This is where I believe God comes into the picture. The Christmas story revolves around the beautiful truth that we need not despair about finding God because God has already found us. And if that’s not Good News, true, good, and beautiful news, I don’t know what is.
Some of us here this evening will resonate with what I have said so far because you know it to be true in your own lives. But to others, what I’m saying may seem like gibberish. If that’s the case, it’s my fault, not the fault of the story itself. But it’s the story itself that’s important. It’s the story itself that I invite you this evening to lose yourself in. It’s the story itself in all its details—improbable, miraculous, beautiful, true, good—that’s the thing to pay attention to this evening, if you can. If you want to.
The question, of course, is: Do you want to lose yourself in the story, and in so doing, find yourself in it? Or rather, are you willing to let God find you here, tonight, just as you are? When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they were just doing their job. They had not prepared for that moment with prayer and fasting. It just took hold of them. If you don’t watch out, the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Incarnation of the Son of God will take hold of you, too, and then you will find it involving you, changing you, exerting a sort of authority over you, so that the more you ponder it in your heart and the more you join in the heavenly host praising God, you will find that you haven’t found God, but that God has found you.
And then what? After the wonder and joy of Christmas has passed, what then? The shepherds doubtless eventually returned to their flocks, and we will all eventually get back to work. The world will be just as full of tears and strife as it ever was. You and I will still have to struggle with whatever burdens we can’t seem to put down, no matter how much we try. What good will losing ourselves in the Christmas story and being found by God do then?
To be honest, that remains to be seen. Speaking only for myself, I know that the challenge is simply to put one foot in front of the other some days, but that is enough. When God finds us, we realize that we don’t have to solve our own problems, let alone the problems of the world. Unlikely as it seems, when God finds us, we simply have to abide in God.
To be sure, abiding in God is another mystery that would take another sermon that I suspect you don’t have the patience to hear and I don’t have the wherewithal to preach. But if it is true (and good, and beautiful) that God wishes to find you tonight through this Christmas story, then the only thing you have to make up your mind about is whether you’re open to being found.
And if you aren’t, who am I to judge? If there’s one thing I do know about God, it’s that God acts in God’s own good time. But I am praying that for you, and for me, God’s time is tonight. Because if Christmas is about giving, I can think of no better gift for you than to be found by God.
The Rev. Nathan J. A. Humphrey is rector of the Zabriskie Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist, Newport, R.I.