BIRTHDAY OF CHRIST--INSOLUBLE PROBLEM OR INCREDIBLE DAY?
How shall I address you, my dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ? What's the appropriate collective for a gathering of Christians? A Quorum or Quarum? A Choir or Quire? How about a Caritas, a Sanctitas, a Felicitas Ecclesiae? A Charity, a Sanctity, a Felicity Assembly? They have a nice ring, don't they?
It's December, my dear Charity in Christ. As I reminded you the last time we met, Christmas is fast approaching. And now that Christ has aroused our seasonal expectations, He'll soon fulfill them all!
But before I begin, may I offer my usual disclaimer. What I say here may appear to be mine, what with my mouthing the words and all, but as you know, nothing I say this morning is really mine. It's all God's, I assure you.
The Apostle Paul said much the same thing in his Second to the Corinthians (4:6-7). The Word of God is stashed in shapely earthen vessels--that's us--but there's no mistaking a jar of clay for the Word of God. And only when the pot is opened--need I say it?--does the Word pour out.
But I've digressed...
Last year, do you remember Christmas morning? You came to celebrate the solemn feast. I was sermonizing about the thorny problems in the genealogies of Christ when a strange thing happened. I looked up, and you'd all dozed off. Well, of course, I stopped instantly, promising I'd return to the sermon at some point in the future. And then another strange thing happened. You all woke up. Happily, we continued the liturgy together.
That day I prayed God I wouldn't forget my promise. Apparently, He's answered my humble petition. I've just remembered it, even if you didn't, and I'm ready to make good on my promise.
As for today, there's no particular feast to commemorate, and I can only hope that you're ready to hear me finish the sermon. I'll make every effort to speak clearly--I promise you that. And you're going to make every effort to stay awake--you should promise me that. Last thing I want to do is speak to deaf hearts and dull souls.
A further word.
An ordinary day it may be on the church calendar, but it's also right smack in the middle of the December gladiatorial schedule. It's no wonder, then, that the church is only half full. The rest of you must be in the amphitheater, looking more for entertainment than salvation. I could say--They've given themselves to games of the Flesh, as it were, but have yet to pay attention due to games of the Truth!--but I won't. Ah well, for their salvation as much for ours, let's pray to God without distractions of any kind.
Now I know some of you dear folk won't join me in this prayer. I know for a fact that there are among you those who hate the gamers as much as the games themselves. Why? Because they're breaking down the good habits they've labored a lifetime to build up.
We human beings are funny that way. One moment we're up; the next moment we're down. Tears of joy when we're right; tears of sorrow when we're wrong. All that's very well, and such may be the cycle of life, but a certain steadiness of hand is required. After all, the Lord'd have us remember that the person who begins well doesn't always end up well. The Evangelist Matthew noted what He actually said. "The person who sticks it out to the end--sometimes to the bitter end--that's the person who'll be saved" (10:22).
BLOODY GAMES AND BLOODY MARTYRS
At best, the games are frivolous; at worst, frightening. Nonetheless, Christ has always wanted to shepherd back to His fold two groups of wandering sheep. The spectators who took great pleasure in them, and the gladiators themselves who made the games so riotous. Could the Lord Jesus Christ--Son of God, yes, but not unwilling to become the Son of Man--do anything more admirable, more magnificent than this, gathering those up in the amphitheater seats as well as those down on the arena floor?
And why not? Christ if anyone should know how it was doing battle with the lion and the tiger. He was once the spectacle Himself. How did that happen? Well, we have it on His own authority. That's to say, He predicted it. He pronounced it as if it were already fact. He had the eloquence of a Prophet, the elegance of the Psalmist. "They've pierced my hands and my feet. They've numbered all my bones. They've looked me up and looked me down as though I were a slab of meat" (VUL 21:17-18; NRSV 22:16-17).
He was ogled the way an amphitheater crowd with blood in their eyes ogled a champion in that wretched arena. He was spotted by those who thought Him fair game, but didn't have the common decency to root for His survival. As a matter of fact, they savaged Him with their voices and, as it were, turned their thumbs down. Yes, He made a spectacle of Himself by allowing us to make a spectacle of Him--I can still see them counting His bones.
And this was how He wanted the Martyrs who came after Him to be seen at the blood games. That was also how the Apostle Paul saw it and reported in his First to the Corinthians. "We've been made tiger bait to the world, and banquet fare for the Angels" (4:9).
When I used to go to these games myself, I noticed that people reacted in two quite different ways.
First, there was the sensualist response--people screaming and shouting as the Christian Martyrs fell to the jaws of the jungle cats, when their heads were cleft from their shoulders, when their carcasses were tossed into the furnace!
But that bloodthirsty response in other people, under some circumstances, could and did indeed change into a spiritual one. They came to watch the games, not through bloodshot eyes but, apparently, through angelic eyes. Oh they saw the bones broken, and they watched the blood flow, and they heard the heart-rending screams of the Martyrs. But then they came to see the unseen; that's to say, the faith of the Christians as they died the death on the arena sand. There was no sight at the games quite like this! A body being mauled while its soul remained unscratched. I know. I've been there.
Now when I say these things aloud in the church, you begin to see them with your own eyes; then, you hear them with your own ears. I know, many of you've never been to the amphitheater at all--you still loathe everything that takes place there--but my words have just now brought you right there, haven't they? I can tell by your tears.
And so may God be with you as you tell your friends who decided to go to the games today that they'd have been better off in church. Tell them about the games you attended with me this morning, if only in your imagination. May they come to regard them as vile, despicable, repulsive! And may they too come to consider themselves just as vile, despicable, repulsive for having derived so much pleasure from them.
Let us pray again. May they come back to church to worship God with us!
Odd thing, though, about some of those bloodthirsty gamers of the past. They came to love Christ because He couldn't be vanquished in the arena. There's no reason to blush about that. But it's a reason to pray with you, to worship Christ with you. Why? Because Christ only gave the appearance of being overcome at the games. What He was really doing down there was overcoming the world.
As we look back at it now, my dear Charity in Christ, He did indeed conquer the world. He made all the principates stand up and salute. He brought all the potentates low. Not with a proud banner but with a poor cross. Not by whanging away with metal against leather but by hanging like a lump from the wood. Suffering corporally, yes, but toiling away spiritually. Planted in the ground, the cross was raised high. His corpus wilting, He caused the world to draw itself up to its fullest height. Is there anything more precious, I ask you, than the diadem dangling from a crown? Well, yes. For the glowing, jewel-encrusted pendant, substitute the grimy cross of Christ. Love this God-Man, and you'll never be embarrassed in public again...
I just can't seem to get off this subject...
Bad it is when the spectators return from the amphitheater in a sad state; that's to say, when their favorites have lost! Worse it'd be if their favorites had won! Worst, they'd be thrice beaten; addicted to the amphitheater, enmeshed in Vain Joy, impaled on the trident of Cheap Greed's!
However many of you, my dear Charity in Christ, had a moment's hesitation this morning before choosing the church over the amphitheater, one thing is sure. You overcame, not just another human being, but the Devil himself, the darkest, big game hunter in the whole world. But the ones who went to the amphitheater were overcome by that very same Devil; he could've been vanquished, though; others've done it. Christ Himself did it!
Overcoming the Devil, however, is possible only because Christ overcame him first. The Evangelist John recorded His words to His disciples at the Last Passover. "Yes, you can rejoice. I've conquered the world" (16:33). Yes, Christ is the Commander-in-Chief, the Imperator Maximus. Yes, He who had the temerity to submit Himself to temptation. Yes, the Devil tried his damnedest, not that he had much of a chance of succeeding against this Enemy. But why did Christ let this happen? He allowed it just to teach His military how to maneuver when under siege.
But I've digressed again. . . .
RUINATION, THEN SALVATION, THROUGH A WOMAN
Back to the point.
To become the son of a Human being, Our Lord Jesus Christ had to be born of a woman. But a question immediately arises. What if He wasn't born of the Virgin Mary? Would He have come out any the less?
Another question surely follows. What if He hadn't been born of a woman at all? Already God the Father had made a man without a woman; I'm speaking of the First Human Being, Adam.
Why a woman? Why not a woman? The one possibility is as good as the other.
Let's take a look at both of them.
If Christ didn't want to take up residence in a woman's womb, what would His reason be? Would He be contaminated by it? Or would His presence make that womb a cleaner, more comfortable place? I think the answer is obvious. Far from fearing that a temporary shelter was inappropriate for such as Himself, He'd want, I think, to show us a mystery of some significance.
Now as a matter of fact, dear Brothers and Sisters, I'm the first to admit it. If the Lord wanted to, He could've become a Human Being without renting a room in a womb, and all the Majesty of the Godhead wouldn't have paid Him the least mind. After all, He'd already made a Human Being from a woman without the assistance of a man. So why couldn't He make a Human Being without the cooperation of either a woman or a man?
I say all this because I don't want either sex, male or female, to despair of its own life-giving powers. And yet in the saying, I know that all the Mothers of the World will fret. Mindful of the First Sin, that the First Man was deceived by the First Woman, they'll think that they haven't a ghost of a chance of ever coming back into the good graces of Christ again. But I'd like to remind them of one thing. Christ was born of a mother and would be consoled by her femininity all the days of His life. That--even though He came into this world clad in full masculinity. There's a message here, and Christ addresses it to both sexes.
"Know, my dear Sexes, that to be a Creature of God isn't a bad thing. Badness came when Perverted Pleasure turned the Creature's face away from the Creator. It happened in the Beginning when I made the First Human Beings, a male one and a female one; that's to say, when I made a man and I made a woman.
"Now I'm not in the habit of condemning a creature I've just made. Just look at me. I was born a man. Indeed I was born of a woman. No, I don't condemn the creatures; it's their sins I condemn. Why? Because I didn't make the sins; they did.
"Each sex should look to its own dignity, and each to its own iniquity, and in the end each will find its own hope. And as the Women of the World they'll surely find some surprises.
"When the First Woman urged the First Man to sip the Sweet Poison, is it so surprising that the damage was repaired through Another Woman?
"Is it so astonishing that this Other Woman made up for the sin of the First Man by giving birth to Christ?
"Is it so stunning that the Women of Jerusalem got wind of the resurrection of Christ before the Apostles did?
"Is it so unbelievable that the Woman in Paradise introduced her husband to the allure of spiritual death, but that it was the Women of Jerusalem who announced salvation to the fearful men who were huddled together in the Upper Room?
"Is it, finally, so dumbfounding that the Apostles announced the Resurrection of Christ to the rest of the World, but by the time they did, it was already old news, at least to the Women of Jerusalem and all those who'd already heard their good news?"
In conclusion, no one, neither male nor female, should feel the least bit upset by the fact that Christ was born of a woman. After all, how could the Liberator of us all be slimed by His contact with that lovely gender when, as a matter of fact, that gentle sex was already sublimed, as it were, by her contact with the Creator?
Excerpted from Sermons to the People by Augustine of Hippo. Copyright © 2002 by Augustine of Hippo. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.