A sermon delivered to the people of New Creation (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on Christmas Eve 2021 by Fr. Justin Clemente
A Prayer for Christmas Eve
While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, your Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne, Alleluia.
Grant tonight that by the preaching of your written Word, our Father, that that same Word incarnate might be born anew in our hearts. Amen.
In the weekly round of my responsibilities, sometimes I forget to check if everything that needs to be in the bulletin is actually in there. So, for example, tonight’s sermon is not “TBD” but instead “Jesus: Wrapped” from Luke 2, which can be found on pg. 857 of your Pew Bible.
Luke’s Gospel is full of powerful yet unexpected signs. But no sign is more powerful than the one given to the shepherds in verse 12: “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
This is how we should think of Jesus – wrapped and given by God himself. In fact, this is a theme in all the gospels – Christ wrapped for us. That’s our meditation tonight.
Jesus Is Wrapped…in Glory
If we are to understand and embrace the wonder of the Incarnation, we understand that Jesus’ story does not begin there. Jesus is the eternal Word of the Father (John 1:1), God from God, Light from Light. He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the power of his word.” (Hebrews 1:3) He is Immanuel: God with us (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).
Before Jesus was wrapped in flesh, he was eternally wrapped in glory. That is what gives texture and taste, spice and celebration to our joy tonight. Without that, the feast loses all taste. Children, the presents you will open tomorrow with their rich and decorative wrapping show forth the hidden splendor of God’s greatest gift to you! Remember that as you open your gifts. This is who Jesus really is: God made flesh.
Jesus Is Wrapped… in Flesh & Obscurity
And he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7) Jesus emptied himself not by losing who he was (God) but by taking to himself a human nature – by becoming as nothing.
And here we come back to the great sign given to men: “A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16) The sign is repeated three times in just this passage! This is the sign that all creation has been longing for and the sign that all human history leads up to and turns on. Alistair Begg writes: “for those of us who think that man is the apex of it all, we can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be absolutely excited to be a man. But if you were God? Imagine. To be God and come down a birth canal, to be laid in a manger, to live as an outcast, to die as a stranger, to bear the abuse and the curse of the law—it sounds like “nothing” to me.”
Today, in our celebrity obsessed culture, paparazzi love to try and catch celebrities doing awkward and ordinary things. And, it is pretty amusing to see them out in their sweats, getting groceries or whatever – they are just people like us. But here, we have God come as man, and come in near total obscurity and weakness! Part of the reason why the angels celebrate the coming of Christ is because if heaven didn’t announce the coming of their King, you might not believe it was actually him. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Think of his humility: he put on rags and he was laid where animals feed on the edge of civilization. The poverty of Christ is for us the riches of heaven. Or, as Paul Gerhardt wrote in the 17th century: “O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is / My paradise at which my soul reclineth / For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word / Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth shineth.”
Here, his being wrapped in lowly flesh demonstrates the true nature of the gift. Don’t miss that. I’ve been reading and reflecting on St. Athanasius’ classic work this week On the Incarnation of the Word. There he writes that although people scorn and laugh at the idea of the Incarnation, we are to adore him for this! He writes, “What men deride as unseemly, this by His own goodness He clothes with seemliness, and what men, in their conceit of wisdom, laugh at as merely human, He by His own power demonstrates to be divine.” (Ch. 1, “Creation and the Fall”)
Jesus Is Wrapped… in a Towel
His birth is an emblem of his whole life. Just before the Crucifixion of Jesus, there is that great moment where he is again wrapped. After the Lord’s Supper, He takes up the towel to wash the feet of his disciples. Hear the Gospel of John, chapter 13:3-5: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Listen to that wording very carefully: Hear first Jesus’ authority and person: that the Father had given all things into his hands. Second, hear his mission: he was sent by the Father and would return to him. And because he knows these two things, what does he do? He serves us.
Here is whole message of Christianity: not that we have loved God, but that he has richly loved us in Christ, wrapped in humility for us. Here is the difference between Christianity every other so-called “way”: it is not a path we climb to God, but God’s path blazed to us in Christ. And tonight, even as human history turn on Christ, so every one of our lives hinges on whether or not we will receive this very, very Good News.
Jesus Is Wrapped…in Cloths
The heart of all this is seen in Jesus’ death on the cross. He came to die. To stand in our place. To make satisfaction for our sin and bear the judgment we deserve. It’s moving to think of the parallels between Jesus’ manger and his cross. For as
author J. McHugh says, “The manger is the mirror of the cross.”
Luke 2:7 says that he was born, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. Some have suggested that the cloths in which he was wrapped were also used to wrap newborn lambs.
Luke 23:53 says that after his death and perfect sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus was taken, wrapped again, and laid again in a tomb.
So not only is Jesus wrapped in humility in his birth, but he is not done yet! He goes further – he is wrapped in the clothes of death that we might live again. As Philippians 2:8 says, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus Is Wrapped…in New Glory
But he did not remain there in that tomb. My friends, I say it again: unless Jesus is living, there is no Good News at this manger. Having accomplished his mission, he rose again, bodily, to incorrupt and glorious life. He is wrapped in a new glory – and he still bears human flesh.
Here’s an essential part of the Incarnation we can’t miss: Jesus has come to restore us to the image of God. Man was gloriously made in the image of God, but we have become the creature of hell we are because the Imago Dei has been defaced in us! Ripped and torn like a painting by the vandal of sin and evil. But thanks be to God – he doesn’t simply throw away his masterpiece or leave it to rot. Listen to St. Athanasius: “The artist doesn’t throw away the panel. But the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again and then the likeness is redrawn on the same material. Even so it was with the all-holy Son of God.” (On the Incarnation of the Word, The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution). The Gospel of Christmas is that the Son has come to make Sons and Daughters of God again. To restore us to God’s good intent as image bearers in Christ.
Our Catechism asks the question, “How does sin affect you?” The answer given is: “Sin alienates me from God, my neighbor, God’s good creation, and myself. Apart from Christ, I am hopeless, guilty, lost, helpless, and walking in the way of death.” Those four unique and special dimensions of human life: first our relationship to God, then each other, creation, and ourselves, can be forgiven and begin to be healed in Jesus.
Let Us Pick Him Up
Friends, that is Jesus, wrapped. And we are here tonight to do nothing more than to receive him. To open our hands by faith and hold him for ourselves. As St. Jerome says, “Let us pick him up in our arms and adore him as the Son of God.” May that be true for everyone of us this Christmas, 2021. Amen.