Crib Notes from Bethlehem (Christmas Eve Sermon)


This is the draft for my short Christmas Eve homily, which will be delivered at the 11 PM service at St. Paul’s UCC in Dallastown, PA, tomorrow evening.  And, of course, I stole/cribbed the title from Laurel Schneider’s great essay in the volume Polydoxy, which she coedited with Catherine Keller.  The lection for the homily is Galatians 4:4-7.

St. Paul writes that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children,” continuing, and “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father’!”  Therefore, we are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (NRSV)

This passage from scripture from St. Paul in Galatians 4 is probably everything we need to know about Christmas in just a few sentences, that God submits to the logic of sacrifice, to be sacrificed on the cross, by entering human form and submitting to the law or logic of humanity.  And as a result, we are all children of the same divine Parent:  no longer slaves to the ways of the world but heirs to inherit the Kingdom of God by building the Kingdom of God for ourselves and for future generations.

But is this really how it all works?  Have we ever realized the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity?  Have we ever found a way to subvert the system of violence and crucifixion that this world has known?  I believe that many of our nations and much of humanity may believe that we have achieved this first step of bringing peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, but we know we have really cheated the full sense of what it means to acknowledge that God is born in a manger, and as such we become adopted children.

There is something special about the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger,” aside from how theologically problematic, or even docetist, the words are.  As a lullaby that we sing to children, we sometimes miss out that when we sing “Away in a Manger” to children, we are ordaining them, with Christ, to lead us as children to be closer to God.

What would this world be like if we not only recognized the Christhood and the Godhood present in the new flesh of babies and children, and honor the sacredness of this humanity God has come to save?  We know that with the number of children living in poverty and in hunger in our country and everywhere in the world, we have not only turned our backs upon the world but we have turned our backs upon God-made-flesh.  Or perhaps stated more accurately, it would seem that the behavior of this world has in fact stolen the divinity and sacredness of cribs of unsuspecting children throughout the world.

A first step for us to move forward is to recognize that we, too, have had our Christhood stolen from the crib, as well, that we too are victims of this world as we participate in the victimization of the world.  And recognizing that the God who is made known to us in newborn flesh is with us, and in us, living and breathing, and perishing with us.  If the Christ-child has been abducted from our lives, it’s time to return him into our hearts, and into our spirits.  If we have cheated in responding to the Good News of Christmas, it is now time to rectify our commitment to the Kingdom of God, whose birth pangs are ringing loudly around us in Christmas bells, and festive lights, and carols, and in the anticipation of children on this dark and cold night.


14 thoughts on “Crib Notes from Bethlehem (Christmas Eve Sermon)

  1. Eventually, all theself-serving tribalistic gods that human beings make become monsters, diseases, a fantasy of body-parts and everything. Pieces of mind are all that moves in heaven. Even all of human experience is merely an iconic procession in the collective room of mind, or tower of babel/babble.
    All kinds of occupations are patterned in the pattern patterning. Unlimited onditional possibilities exist, vastly complex – but they are not Truth Itself, they are Not reality Itself.

  2. Thank you. The beginning point for writing the sermon was considering “Away in a Manger.” What redeeming qualities might the song have – theologically – if it is indeed committing Docetism? Especially interesting, at least for me. considering that “Away in a manger” was probably written by John Murray, the founder of the former universalist denomination in the US.

  3. A fine christmas sermon and insights into “Away In a Manger” much obliged Christopher. @John, ‘fantasy of body parts,’ and ‘tribal monster god‘ could be worked into a nice hymn too, Seasons best.

  4. Really interesting. Following this logic, though, a question: if Christhood/divinity has been stolen, then why is sacrifice necessary? Why not, for instance, counter-theft, or even a willingness to do violence toward (rather than sacrifice before) that which steals?

  5. Yeah, i thought there might be a Girardian element there.

    At the risk of stupidly repeating my question, though, i’m wondering why, “theologically” (or “theopolitically”), the response to theft of Christhood/divinity is sacrifice. That response does not seem to be entailed by the theft. In other words, one could theopolitically imagine a war against thieves, a defense of divinity against thieves.

    Whereas the Girardian response is to sacrifice oneself before the thieves. This would seem to require compromising (divinity) with the economy of thieves, rather than opposing it as such. (My point, fwiw, is one that follows Robert Meister’s account, in *After Evil*, of the fundamental difference between Islam/demand for justice now and Christianity/Girard/human rights discourse)

  6. I suppose that’s possible. Though i think that requires an account of what is being sacrificed — or what is the self that is sacrificed, and what is the self that does the sacrificing.

    Or, put otherwise, which is more important: to say that i am a thief, and we all are thieves; or to say that i am divine, and on this basis can oppose thieving behavior.

    It seems that the basic move of Christianity is to side with the former. To be divine then is something that is somehow proper only to Christ, and that can be given to other humans only insofar as they first confess/say they are thieves.

  7. 1. The suggestion of the divinity stolen from our crib resonates obliquely with Michel Henry’s anthropic appropriation of Johannine Incarnation, and may even be rectified by it. This discourse revives the aim of theōsis or divinization dominant through most of philosophy and theology (Epicureanism being curiously excepted) in Mediterranean Antiquity, both “Pagan” and “Christian.” Recurrences of this theme run variously through Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus, Bruno, Nietzsche (following Wilhelm Mūller) even before Henry (or any of the recent techno-theologies), though the latter also tried seriously to rewed Nietzsche to that ancient tradition through Johannine Christianity.

    2. This general anthropic incarnation of the divine AND its impediment could inflect the Girardian speculations (which to me first seemed extraneous to the discourse of divinization) in a different way. As far as I understand (having studied with Girard for three years in my remote undergrad years), self-sacrifice is NOT the Christian (or any proper) response to Christ’s unveiling of mimetic violence. The good mimesis enjoined on those who accept the mimetic epistemology of the Passion (to follow here the Girardian theorist J-P Dupuy, who has insisted somewhat problematically that Christianity is not a morality, but an epistemology) is precisely to expose and reject the bad mimesis of envious violence and scapegoating. If there is good news issuing from the Passion narrative, it is that no one need ever be sacrificed again, because sacrifice was NEVER required by God (note the difference here with most traditional theories of atonement). If Christ who revealed this is for Girard divine, then that divinity has nothing to do with the double transference of collective guilt and the imputed restoring of order. Accordingly, if good mimesis is also the imitation of the truly divine, it is also to reject a divinity based on or conferred by sacrifice. In other words, to be(come) divine in this (extrapolated) Girardian sense means precisely – and ironically – to refuse the possibility of divinization by the usual (nonphilosophic) means. It is not a matter of acquiring or keeping divine status as a property (which then could be robbed – cf. the Christic Hymn in Philippians 2), but a lifeway requiring no conversion in an ontological sense (but a noetic one certainly, hence the metanoia of the NT).

    3. One might say that the dominant Greek tradition (particularly in its Platonic and Stoic strands) represents an effort to forge other paths to divinization free from either abjection by or subjection of others (the “autocracy” or self-control of Marcus Aurelius was ironically not free from the latter, as it also meant emperorship engaged in not purely defensive military campaigns). In this regard, Buddhist and Jain nonattachment are no doubt cognate, if also more highly developed, traditions that actually go beyond discourses of godhead (as in Gottheit or divinity). From an extended Girardian perspective (I say extended because Mimetic Theory is largely postmetaphysical and thus little interested in any traditional sense of divinization), however, these attempts could not be adequate without a thoroughgoing account and rejection of socially generated (interdividual rather than individual) violence. Naturally Girard and his followers have rightly been criticized for projecting a Christian triumphalism here, but if so, it is also because Mimetic Theory places a premium on epistemology sociologically conceived rather than an effective praxis or ethics, where other traditions and communities might have more to offer.

    Incidentally, the question of thievery in the post and Dan’s intervention brings to mind the doctrine of redemption, which is literally buying back, paralleling Paul’s Greek apolutrōsis: securing release by paying ransom (did God negotiate with bandits and terrorists?). But its verb apolutroō along with its root form apoluō can also mean more generally to dislodge, refute or release. Dan posed an alternative between either confessing to or opposing thievery, the former as a prerequisite to being granted divinity, and the latter as enabled by one’s (prior) divinity. Michel Henry’s reading of John would seem to opt for the latter. For him, the incarnate subject I = I can. The queer thing is that if you have your divinity robbed, you may also become a robber, but if you are divine, you can oppose robbery, even your own. I am transposing Christopher’s and Dan’s “theft” for “robbery” because I also want to point to the robbers (lēstai is more than thieves) cocrucified with Christ as well as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, who are precisely opposed and ejected. Seems there may be room for both options from the Gospel texts after all.

  8. Sorry to have omitted by mistake this incipit to the comment above…

    Three belated (i.e. post-holiday) remarks to this intriguing homily and discussion:

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