By Bill Carroll
Babies change us. The birth of a child brings with it the possibility of new life and new directions. In families, birth is one of the chief occasions, the others being marriage and death, when relationships can change in a fundamental way. When a child is born, the ties that bind us to other people become more fluid. We glimpse and sometimes choose new possibilities for life together.
Of course, we do not always seize the opportunity. We all know families that seem hell-bent on living out the biblical saying that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. By nature or nurture, we seem scripted to play certain roles in our significant relationships. Not all of these roles are destructive or sinful, though some clearly are. In either case, it can be disconcerting to be caught doing something in the same way that our parent or another relative did. Pagan writers, the Greeks in particular, displayed similar insight in their appeals to necessity and fate. Along with Paul, Augustine, and Luther, the tradition of tragedy from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and beyond forms an important counterpoint to the humanistic confidence of the West. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his critique of “American exceptionalism,” the doctrine of original sin is not only “empirically verifiable” but especially important for a young nation that tends to ignore the lessons of history through naïve faith in its own goodness that remains blind to the ambiguities and pitfalls of power.
As Christians, we tend also to believe in the reality of human freedom, though not all of us have stressed this equally. Historically, Anglicans have placed a premium on human potential and achievement. Indeed, our tradition has been described as a form of Christian humanism, a phrase that might seem self-contradictory to some of our brothers and sisters, for whom “humanism” is the great enemy of the Gospel. We believe in human dignity and freedom, since we are made in the image and likeness of God. This is damaged (not destroyed) by the fall. We still choose freely and sometimes rightly, even though we confront forces more powerful than we. The script may already be written. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, however, we are free to improvise (perhaps even rewrite) our lines.
It is for this reason that the Christian year begins with Advent promises of new beginnings. We ask Almighty God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” because we know how we resist God’s grace in our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. We still bear a family resemblance to Adam that we find disturbing. The love of God does not come first for us, and we tend to see our brothers, sisters, and neighbors as hindrances to what we want rather than living, breathing sacraments of Christ. We need a season of prayer, preparation, and repentance to get ready for the coming Son of God.
At the end of the season, we meet the Christ Child. Tiny, vulnerable, and poor, he reaches out to us. In the baby Jesus, we come face to face with God. We do not feel worthy, nor are we. We seem to know from the moment we meet Jesus that we will let him down. And yet, in him, the rod of our oppressor has been broken. In him, our humanity is restored. In him, the mighty are brought low, and the humble raised up. And the Word of God becomes silent, as he gazes upon us in love.
Christmas is a time for new beginnings. Come, Lord Jesus, and make it so.
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.