Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
"What is Truth?"
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. God will dwell with us,
and we shall be God’s people, and God will be with us, and be our God.” (Rev. 21:3)
“What is truth? What is truth?” That is a question that will follow this child Jesus whom we celebrate tonight for all of his life. The people of his hometown will wonder by what authority he speaks so compellingly as a young man; his disciples will debate the truth of who he is as he pursues his ministry among them; the scribes and the Pharisess will debate the authenticity of his teaching; and ultimately, the question will be put most directly to him at his own trial by Pontius Pilate: ”What is truth?”
The importance of Christmas, I think, is that it ultimately has to do with exactly this question, “What is truth?” And this is especially so this year, when we are aware of being surrounded by so much untruth. Indeed, in recent years, the deliberate spread of false information and the denial of demonstrable fact have become so prominent in our culture, that we have had to invent a vocabulary to name it: we now speak of “truthiness,” for example, as an acceptable level of veracity.
Christmas, however, points us back to truth itself. It does so, because the story it tells asks us first and foremost to look honestly at the truth about ourselves, seen in the light of what happens at Jesus’ birth. In the simplicity of Mary and Joseph and the humbleness of the back-alley setting of Jesus’ birth, the story challenges the self-important understanding we have of ourselves. We are, after all, so adept as human beings at constructing elaborate and well-defended accounts of our own security and importance, which we repeat over and over to ourselves to shore up the defenses around our sense of self.
But then, like the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the life of Mary, life has a way of breaking through those fantasies, exposing their ultimate fragility and absurdity. A job is lost. There is a market crash. An illness robs us of our health. An accident snuffs out the life of our beloved.
And with what then are we left? This is where the Christmas story invites us to re-examine the truth about ourselves. And the first thing we might notice in doing so, is that despite the messiness and fragility of human life, God’s being and loving is strangely directed towards us. As the theologian Rowan Williams puts it, whereas we might expect that a God who is the creator of all things would be ashamed or reluctant to identify with our corrupted humanity, nevertheless God instead chooses in Jesus to take on the very flesh and bones of our life, crossing a boundary from the divine into solidarity with our humanity, just as it is.
Williams makes this point most strongly with reference to icons of Mary, many of which depict her holding the child Jesus gazing lovingly, longingly, insistently into her eyes. In such an image, we sense the divine presence enacting a love that does not depend on anything, except on having someone to love. In the gaze of her child Jesus, in other words, Mary is able to see herself truthfully—as one who is loved by him, which is to say, loved by God.
Such an image encourages us likewise to see ourselves perhaps for the first time truly as we are: as the object of a love that does not depend on our attempts at managing our success or keeping control of our lives, but merely on God’s desire to love us. In a word, the truth about us, is that we are loved. We are the beloved of God not because of who we are, but simply because we are. That is the truth toward which Christmas leads.
But if that is true, then we have some work to do truly to recognize and accept such a freely given divine love for ourselves. We too have a boundary to cross: from the confused picture we have of ourselves as secure either in the affirmation we receive from or the manipulation we make of other people, to the self-emptying poverty of spirit that is necessary to accept ourselves as loved for no other reason, than that we are. As Williams puts it, “I discover myself as someone who is being made real by God’s attention to me; I live because Christ looks at me,” just as the infant Jesus gazed at Mary.
In fact, the whole story of Jesus’ birth points us exactly in the direction of a poverty of spirit—a relinquishing of our own inflated self-importance—that turns out to be the prerequisite to knowing ourselves truly. The nativity narrative is given its shape and form by indicators pointing insistently and repeatedly toward just such a modesty. Think of the obscurity and unpretentiousness of Mary, chosen to bear the child Immanuel; or the simplicity and anonymity of Joseph, her betrothed; or the sacrificial trek they make together on foot and by donkey to Bethlehem; or their banishment to a stable at the end of the journey; or the coarseness of the shepherds to whom Jesus’ birth is first announced. At every turn, only those who have no reason to assume anything about their own importance are invited to be involved in God’s crossing of the boundary between heaven and earth—and perhaps the lesson for us is that only those who know they cannot trust their own self-congratulatory fantasies about themselves are in the end able to receive such good news as we hear tonight.
Perhaps this is what Oscar Romero, the martyred bishop of El Salvador, meant when he said in one of his Advent sermons:
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God, for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone.
That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
Christmas is about seeing ourselves with this kind of truthfulness, not just so that the distortions through which our pride and ego operate can be exposed for what they are, but even more importantly, so that we may see God truthfully for who God is: the one whose comprehensive, forgiving attention to us makes it possible for us to drop all the games of self-deception by which we otherwise try to live. Only when those games have ceased, is there room for the stranger to enter in; only then do perceived threats to our well-being retreat in importance; only then are our efforts directed to the common rather than individual good.
In a time such as this of such rampant untruth, living with the kind of truthfulness to which Mary gives witness may be the most important thing we as a community of faith have to do. This Christmas night challenges us to set a high bar of what it means to value truth, to act with integrity and restraint, to respect other people’s dignity and worth, and to instill those values in ourselves, our children, our church, our community, and our nation. This Christmas night challenges us to wrestle in all humility with that ultimate question with which we began: “What is truth?”
For to repeat: “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly
poor. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016