By Jenny Andison

I remember when our youngest daughter, Charlotte, was about 3. She was having a hard time going to sleep, and I was having a hard time being patient. One night in particular, I remember she didn’t want me to leave the room, and I was trying to come up with any solution that did not involve me having to lie down with her. Light on in the hall. No good. Blankie? Didn’t do the trick. Her favorite purple doll. No luck. So finally I said, “Charlie, what is it that you need to go to sleep, sweet pea?” Softly she whispered, “I need someone with skin on.” And then of course, I had to lie down.

Someone with skin on. Charlotte may have been only 3, but she was on to something. Margaret Wente, columnist in The Globe and Mail, a few years ago wrote how she lost her faith when she was a teenager, but at Christmas found herself drawn back to church: “On an impulse,” she wrote, “I knelt at the altar for communion and took the wine and wafer. The congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer. We all sang Silent Night, and lit candles in the dark. I didn’t believe a word of it, not a word. But it didn’t matter. I was so affected that I could scarcely speak.”

You may have your doubts like Margaret does, and many varied things will have drawn you here this evening: a desire for wonder and joy (which is what I imagine drew Margaret); family obligation; a need for space and beauty in the midst of the craziness of life. Whatever the reason, eyewitnesses recorded for us an historical event so shattering no one could have possibly made it up. They would have just been laughed at.

Yet this evening, we are all united by one simple wonder: that God decided to put some skin on — to put some skin in the game — so we could come to know who God is and the difference God can make in our lives. And tonight, I want us to imagine what the world would be like if it were not true, if it did not happen, if Emperor Augustus did not call a census, if Joseph and his young bride did not make the trek to Nazareth, if shepherds were not keeping watch over their flocks by night. Imagine if God did not put skin on, and it is all just a comforting fairy tale. Or to put it another way, what will change if it is true, if the heavens were ripped open and legions of angels did fill the sky?

Well, to start with, if the Christmas story that our Gospel writer Luke carefully recorded for us is not true, then it means that on some level, humans and human relationships are disposable. God becoming one of us dignifies what it means to be human –– no one therefore is disposable, no one is irredeemable, no one is beyond hope. God living a human life demonstrates for us the potential that exists in all of us, and in all our relationships, for transformation. By coming to earth as the baby Jesus, God is hanging in there with us, not leaving us to our own devices, not abandoning us. Jesus shows us what is possible in our friendships, our marriages, or work relationships. Because of Christmas, people cannot simply be tossed aside, climbed over, or ignored. This affects not only how followers of Jesus seek to shape public policy in this city of Toronto, but also how as individuals we handle conflict in our closest relationships.

If the Christmas story were not true, then we could continue to do whatever we like to our creation. God coming to earth shows us that stuff matters, that the tangible world we live in is not incidental, and that our fate (both daily and eternally) is bound up with this earth, this world that God loved so much that he came and inhabited it. We know that matter matters to God. The world is a good thing, and God wishes us to enjoy it and revel in art and music (which I know you do here at St. Thomas’s). Because if the Christmas story is not true, then it means that God is in fact all those things that we sometimes suspect—far off and distant, indifferent to suffering and injustice, not involved in our daily lives and impotent to change things, basically boring and irrelevant.

Now, let us ask the question the other way: what will change if it is true, if the glory of the Lord did shine around, and the angel of the Lord did say, “Do not be afraid”? Most of us are driven daily by fear: fear of missing out (thank you, Instagram), fear of aging and dying, fear of not living up to standards, whether they be our parents’ standards, our bosses’, or our friends’, or the standards of the professional networks to which we belong.

And the religious systems of the world aggravate and feed off that fear. Be it the Eightfold Path or the Five Pillars or even the Ten Commandments taken in isolation, all these fundamentally tell us one thing: work hard for the Divine. Perform. Behave. Earn your way back to God, who is distant and detached. But Christmas, the miracle of the Incarnation, means that God has come to us. It means that God takes the initiative and reaches out to us in grace and mercy. Because of Christmas, we can respond with lives of grateful joy and love, not lives driven by fear and anxiety, or by their close relatives, guilt and shame.

And because Christmas is true, we also have an incredible resource for times of suffering and pain. Imagine that you share with someone your pain, and they are able to tell you that they have been through the same thing as you. It makes such a difference. And if they then tell you that they have actually been through even worse and have come through the other side, and that they will be with you, that is transformative. Dorothy Sayers, the famous British crime writer, puts it like this. Christmas means that

for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is — limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.

The Bible does not give us an exhaustive answer to the great “why” of pain and suffering. But Christmas gives us a resource in the midst of our suffering that may actually be more practically valuable than a philosophical explanation of why. God became vulnerable as a small baby, lived and suffered the vagaries of human life, and died himself. Only Christian faith adds courage to God’s list of attributes. God knows what it is like to experience hunger, injustice, danger, rejection, torture, and death. On tonight of all nights, God is Emmanuel, God with us.

If Christmas is true, then it is also the end of all pretension and arrogance. It’s the end of being impressed by power, status, and physical beauty. Christmas shows us that God was willing to leave behind all the glory, majesty, and beauty of heaven, leave behind the worship and praise of legions of angels. God was willing to empty himself of his glory and power and come to earth as a tiny baby — a plan that was equal parts risk and fabulous audacity, and certainly seemed to lack adequate safety features. Couldn’t God have at least made himself a magical baby, with a few select superpowers? But no, God was willing to live as a humble servant — ordinary and unremarkable in every conceivable way — and this means that it is possible to belong to a community, a Christian community, where we are not judged and rated by our physical appearance or awed by status and power.

Christmas means that there is a group of people out in the world, called the Church, exploring a different way of living this one and only life we all have. It’s a different way of thinking about our identity and sense of worth, a new way of evaluating our careers and thinking about money and power. Because if Christmas is true, then it is also a powerful force for justice in this world. God took on human flesh, and so we are not trying to escape the physical world or our careers or our relationships. No, God wishes to redeem and heal both our souls and our bodies, so fighting poverty and injustice, disease and hunger, and living sacrificially is on the agenda for anyone seriously learning how to follow the way of Jesus.

And last, but certainly not least, if the heavens were ripped open that first Christmas night and a newborn baby’s cry did pierce the night sky, then we can all live with an irrepressible hope. We know that one day there will be a time when all decay, sin, disease, and injustice will be wiped away. And whatever problems have weighed down life, we know that eventually the long arc of history bends toward God’s love and redemption. God is for us. God is Emmanuel. God is with us.

Tonight is a holy night, where the air is crackling with life and hope. God has put skin in the game. God has become human. The ideal has permeated the real and is transforming us, one person at a time, into God’s likeness. The world is destined for joy sooner or later, and tonight we hear the opening notes in the soaring symphony of the greatest love story ever told.

Where you are seated, let us pray:

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts — that the God who placed the stars in the heavens is the God who entrusted his life to the care of ordinary people that we might know how strong is the power of Love. A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp. A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is rector of St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, Toronto, and was previously a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Toronto.