Glory to God in the Highest
Fr. Gregory Hallam · December 30, 2013
Audio length: 10:58
Fr. Deacon Emmanuel says we are not celebrating the birth of baby Jesus. We are celebrating the birth of Christ—the birth of “the Anointed One,” the Messiah.
Tomorrow is a holiday. After much work, preparing for the holiday we can celebrate. But what are we celebrating? Are we celebrating the birth of baby Jesus? Not really, there would be little reason for us to celebrate tomorrow the birth of a little baby born some two thousand years ago whose mother lived in Nazareth in Palestine, and who was born in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, also in Palestine—a small province in the powerful Roman Empire.
We are not celebrating the birth of baby Jesus. We are celebrating the birth of Christ—the birth of “the Anointed One,” the Messiah. We are celebrating what is known in theology as “the Incarnation”—the amazing reality that God Himself became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. The birth of Jesus Christ is worth celebrating. That birth was an important event in history—expected by the Jews, but totally unexpected by many others. Now what does this birth mean for us today? How does Christmas change our lives now?
First, we should recognise that over the centuries not much has changed in terms of how people respond to the Messiah. Some people, just like first-century Jews, expect that the birth of Christ will change their lives, while many others have no knowledge of the coming of Jesus Christ. Those of us who are Christians know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity; and we have reason to celebrate. St. Bede has reminded us that: “He who appeared temporally [that is, within time] in the City of David as a human being from a virgin mother was, in truth, himself born before all time and without spatial limitation, light from light, true God from true God” (Homilies on the Gospels 1:6).
Children, what do you do at Christmas?
For us as Christians, tomorrow is not really a day to be happy in our ability to live comfortably and eat and drink well, in our ability perhaps to fall asleep in front of the television. No, tomorrow is a day during which we celebrate that God loves us—that God wants to help us face any problems we have. God wants each of us to understand the meaning of life—the meaning of who He is, and the meaning of who we are. Those two meanings are linked together—who God is tells us who we can be. How? How can understanding more about the life of Jesus Christ and who God is give us the power to know more about who are and what our lives might be?
Because Jesus Christ is an example for us. We can live with the same confidence and faith in God the Father, the same humility and the same ability to serve others as Christ did. The 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” That is precisely how Christ treats every one of us every day—not as we are, but as we ought to be and could be.
Children, this is important: treat people as you would like to be treated, even if your friends are not behaving especially well. If you treat them with kindness, they are much more likely to treat you with kindness, too. The example for all of us is Jesus Christ.
Children and adults, imagine for a moment that we in this church on this Christmas Eve are in the same situation as the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). That is what we are doing now—keeping watch over those for whom we care, preparing for the morning. If an angel were to appear now in this church, we would be just as frightened as the shepherds to find that “the glory of the Lord” was shining around us (Luke 2:9). The message that the angel brought to the shepherds is the same message that God brings to us on this Christmas Eve: “‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David [that is, Jerusalem, and its nearby suburb, Bethlehem] a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).
Now the angel went on to tell the shepherds: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). We will not receive that sign, because the birth of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, has already happened. However, however, we can know that what the shepherds then experienced is an experience that is possible for each of us—the same surprise, the same awe—that is, fear, admiration and wonder—the same desire to draw closer to Jesus Christ and to see who He is.
The Gospel of St. Luke tells us: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among [those] with whom he is pleased.’ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. . .” (Luke 2:13-16). So there we are. The angels have gone away into heaven. We can no longer see the heavenly choir. Yet the song that the heavenly choir of angels was singing to the shepherds is still being sung to us today and in the years to come: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among [those] with whom He is pleased.” The seventh century Arab monastic and theologian, St. John of Damascus, known as St. John the Monk, wrote: “Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and humankind gone up to heaven. Today, for the sake of humankind, the invisible one is seen in the flesh. Therefore,” wrote St. John the Monk, “let us glorify Him and cry aloud: glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace [be] bestowed [that is, be given] by your coming, Saviour: glory to you” (Stichera of the Nativity of the Lord, The Festal Menaion, pp. 263-264).
Children and adults: I promise you this: if you prepare and go to receive Holy Communion today and tomorrow and on many Sundays and festivals to come—if you “with fear of God and faith and love draw near” to Christ, He will draw near to you, because Christ loves all of us.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn