excerpts from Christmas Sermon
Canterbury Cathedral, 25 December 2004
It used to be said that if you were travelling by ocean liner, the worst thing you could do was to visit the engine room. Getting too close to the center of things (or what people think is the centre of things) can be alarming or disillusioning or both: you really don’t want to know that, people will say; you don’t need to know how things work (or fail to work). Get on with it.
And that’s where Christmas is actually a bit strange and potentially worrying. When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, ‘the fire in the equations’ as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.
It ought to shock us to be told year after year that the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe; and it ought to worry us – us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. But this festival tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love. The gospel reading sets this out in terms that cannot be argued with or surpassed. God is always, from all eternity, pouring out his very being in the person of the Word, the everlasting Son; and the Word, who has received everything from the gift of the Father, and who makes the world alive by giving reality to all creation, makes a gift of himself by becoming human and suffering humiliation and death for our sake.
‘From his fullness we have all received’; Jesus, the word made human flesh and blood, has given us the freedom, the authority, to become God’s children by our trust in him, and so to have a fuller and fuller share in God’s own joy.
We live from him and in him. The whole universe exists because God has not held back his love but allowed it to flow without impediment out of his own perfection to make a world that is different from him and then to fill it with love through the gift of his Son. And our life as Christians, our obligations, our morality, do not rest on commands alone, but on the fact that God has given us something of his own life.We are caught up in his giving, in his creative self-sacrifice; true Christian morality is when we can’t help ourselves, can’t stop ourselves pouring out the kind of love that makes others live. Morality, said one prominent modern Greek Orthodox theologian, is not about right and wrong, it’s about reality and unreality, living in Christ or living for yourself. Being good is living in the truth, living a real life, a life that is in touch with ‘the fire in the equations’ and that lets the intense creativity of God through into his world. The goodness of the Christian is never a matter of achieving a standard, scoring high marks in a test. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through – the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.
[In his letter to the church in Philippi, when St Paul insists on love between Christians, he appeals, not to an abstract moral principle, but to the fact of God becoming human. Christ empties himself, and Paul invites us to do likewise, living for others as Christ has done. Love is given so that love may be born and given in return.] That is the engine of the universe; that is what we see in the helpless child of Bethlehem, God so stripped of what we associate with divinity that we can see the divine nature only as God’s act of giving away all that he is.
And if we want to live in the truth, to live in reality, to live by the Spirit who is breathed out from the Father and the Word, this has to be our life. Can [this church respond to the needs of the world from this place of self-emptying love? Can we motivate one another to] get involved in voluntary action, advocacy and giving? If the answer is yes, we shall have taken a step towards living in the truth. The law of all being, the fire in the equations which has kindled all life and which burns without restriction in every moment of the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection, will have kindled in us. ‘I have come to cast fire upon the earth’, said Jesus. We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this ‘engine room’ – the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.
© Rowan Williams 2004