A new beginning
Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
You can tell it’s the Sunday after Christmas Day. It’s as if the tree is still up, but the presents have been swept away with all their bright wrapping and we are back to work. We linger near the crib and manger, yet sentimentality has departed. King Herod is searching for Jesus “to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13).
What is it that draws us in to the beauty of this season, and what gives us pause when we hear of Herod’s rage? The same thing, I’d wager. The presence of the infinite God as a human being with limitations, the great King of all creation made a subject. The limitations of flesh and blood have consequences. While a great star heralding the birth of Jesus shines in sky, he stoops upon the earth, totally dependent on others, at risk like any child, subject to many possible dangers. The immortal God, whom no one can see or hear, whose nature is unfathomable, has become vulnerable in our nature. And so he may be killed.
Herod the Great, the ruler of Jesus’ people, threatens him. This king was notorious for his cruelty in the ancient world, and not just because of the Gospel of Matthew. The ancient historian Josephus records some of his peculiar deeds, including the execution of three of his sons. According to Augustus Caesar, “It was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” (He followed the dietary laws; his problem seems to have been with the 10 Commandments!)
Herod executed his first wife, Mariamne as well; the Talmud preserves a gruesome legend saying he encased her in honey after killing her, so he could look on her preserved body. Even if this is not true, it gives you the flavour of this man, and his reputation as a moral monster.
I found myself thinking about Herod this week, and the problem of Christmas for those unwilling to receive it. My mother’s family has the Christmas Eve tradition of viewing the 1951 classic Scrooge, starring Alistair Sim, based of course on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Scrooge too is a moral monster, described by Dickens as
A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
You may recall the famous scene in which Scrooge refuses to donate money to poverty relief, saying the poor ought to go to the workhouses or to debtors’ prison. Failing that, they should be left to die and “decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge doesn’t even have compassion for himself: he eats meagrely, seeks no entertainment, and lives in a house with little furniture or decoration. Work and cash are all he cares for, a puritanical capitalist of the extremest kind.
Yet A Christmas Carol shows the genius of Dickens as he spins a tale about the possibility of change Scrooge is old and set in his ways. But in the end he repents.
It’s not an easy process: he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, and by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas to Come. They make him review all his past mistakes, every careless word, really rubbing his face in it. He has to recognize all the suffering he’s inflicted on others, not to mention all the good he could have done. He sees his own bitter demise. It’s rough going. But that time to take stock has its effect, and he wakes on Christmas morning made new.
I kept thinking this year: Didn’t Herod have the same opportunity? He lived in a land of prophets and priests; he knew the Scriptures. He wasn’t an irreligious person; he even helped restore the Temple in Jerusalem. At the time of Christ’s birth, he saw the star shining, and, like Scrooge perhaps, he was visited by three kindly guests, the Wise Men from the East, who offered him fair warning. When they came with their news about the birth of Christ, Herod sought the advice of “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.” He “inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” And they told him.
We could almost imagine an alternative history, where King Herod the Great welcomed the birth of Jesus the Messiah with banners unfurled, where frightened Jerusalem received the Prince of Peace, where Jesus did not have to go into exile in Egypt. If Herod had only repented…
But that would be a fairy tale, not the Gospel. The Gospel takes place in the real world of squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinners. The Gospel goes forth in a world of “enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, quarrels, dissensions” (Gal. 5:20) and other works of the flesh. In other words, Christ is born in the place we know. He shared in flesh like ours, and in our world, that he might transform both flesh and world.
That through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15).
He became like us “in every way,” coming in our body and facing the depravities and suffering that we face (v. 17). And as he encountered them, God made the human nature of Christ “perfect through sufferings,” until finally “by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone” (v. 9).
It’s those last two words that are so important: for everyone. He tasted death for Herods and Scrooges, the moral monsters of our world, and for all the lesser sinners; he tasted death for us — that we might be able to avail ourselves of his mercy. As he was born for us, so we can be reborn in him (cf. Heb 2:10). Such is the grace of his Holy Spirit.
We often feel as if this is not the case, as if we and the world are stuck in our present state . Perhaps like Scrooge we whine that we are too set in our ways to change, too old, too tired: “hard and sharp as flint…solitary as an oyster.” Or like Herod we are comfortable and secure, unwilling to give up our place in life or our power, even when strange travellers bearing news of the Christ come knocking at our door.
For all of us, the promise of rebirth remains real. Christ came once in the flesh; he is ever present in the Spirit — present with us now. And just as that Spirit overshadowed the blessed Virgin to form the Christ child in her womb, so it hovers over our hearts to make a new beginning.
We need only seek him and pray.
 Fulgentius, On the Incarnation and Grace of Christ 20:
That form which we recognize spiritually in our faith came before in the flesh of Christ. For Christ the Son of God was conceived and born according to the flesh by the Holy Spirit. But the Virgin could not conceive nor bear that flesh, unless the Holy Spirit had made a beginning of his flesh. Thus also in the human heart faith cannot begin nor grow, unless the Holy Spirit pours forth and nourishes it. For we are reborn by the same Spirit from which Christ was born.