Christmas Eve

The Saviour of the World Is Born For You

 

The Saviour of the world is born and Saint Luke tells us of his birth, beginning his nativity account by letting us know why things happened where they did. He tells us that the divine Son of God humbled Himself by not only taking on our flesh and blood and being born true Man of a virgin mother, but also by allowing the condition and situation of His birth to be dictated by a pagan ruler, by one who had set himself up as the “saviour of the world.” Yes, that’s how Caesar Augustus thought of himself and how he wanted to be regarded by everyone else.

This self-anointed “saviour of the world” was originally called Octavius. He was the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. When Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius, Octavius was one of the two contenders to become the next Caesar. The other was the illegitimate son of Julius and Cleopatra. Civil war broke out in the empire to decide which of these two would next rule the world, and, as it turned out, Octavius won—even though he had little to do with the victory. It was his general Agrippa who really won the war. But Octavius took all the credit. He changed his name to the more majestic sounding Augustus and declared that by bringing peace to the world through his victory, he was the “saviour of the world.”

It’s ironic, dear friends, that this self-proclaimed saviour of the world would end up having a minor, yet important role in the birth of Him who is the real Saviour of the world. Saint Luke tells us at the beginning of his nativity account, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The glory of Rome was growing and needed to fill her coffers to pay for its magnificence. Thus the registration or census was declared, so that people like Joseph, a poor carpenter from Nazareth, and his betrothed wife Mary, great with child, could be included on the taxation rolls. We’re told that they were required to travel for this registration to Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David.”

When Mary and Joseph, and the yet unborn baby cradling in Mary’s womb, complete their 64 mile walk from Nazareth and reach the little town of Bethlehem, they go to what Saint Luke calls in Greek a “katalumati,” which is a word of somewhat flexible meaning, referring to a variety of places for lodging. Some, in recent years, have suggested that this place may, in fact, have been the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. But it could also have been, as we’ve traditionally held over the years, a place of public accommodation—an inn. In any case, it doesn’t really matter, for the house or inn is all filled up with others who have come to Bethlehem for the census.

Well this, dear friends, is more than just a bit of inconvenience, for Mary is now fully ready to give birth. The baby is coming; they can’t wait for a room to become available. The only place where there is space for them to go is where the animals are brought in at night. And so when Jesus, the true Saviour of the world is born of Mary, she wraps Him in swaddling cloths and lays him in a manger; she sets Him down to sleep in the animals’ feeding trough. Not the usual story that one hears of a baby coming into this world, is it? But Mary, we’re told, seems to take it all in stride—even when a bunch of smelly shepherds fresh from the Judean hillside arrive to see what has happened—to see what an angel of the Lord has told them all about. Mary just “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

She certainly has a lot to ponder on, doesn’t she? The shepherds’ recounting of the angel appearing to them, of his announcement to them of the birth of “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” would, I can well imagine, have her thinking back upon her own encounter with one of God’s heavenly messengers, by the name of Gabriel. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he had said as he appeared to her out of nowhere, startling her so that she was “greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Continuing, the angel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid, for she had “found favor with God.” He said to her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Of course, this is quite a lot for a young, teenage girl to take in. And, perhaps, it’s a lot for us to take in, too, for in the English translation of this account, we don’t hear what Mary heard as the angel spoke to her in her own language. What she heard was not that she will conceive a child, as in sometime in the future, but that this conceiving is happening in her now. Understandably Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Answering her, Gabriel explains that this is the working of God the Holy Spirit in her through the speaking of the Word that God had given His holy angel to proclaim. To Mary it all seems so impossible, but, as Gabriel tells her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

In that night of our Lord’s birth, Mary quite likely also pondered another visit by an angel—a visit by an angel to Joseph in a dream. That angel came to explain to Joseph how and why his betrothed wife was with child, when the two of them had not yet come together in the marriage bed. Before having it all explained to him, Joseph had concluded that Mary’s “family way” condition was the result of her being unfaithful to him with another man. Saint Matthew tells us that because Joseph was “a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” he “resolved to divorce her quietly.” But the angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” He took Mary to be his wife, and in this he also became the faithful foster father and guardian of Jesus, the Saviour of His people—the Saviour of the world.

All these things that Mary ponders in her heart when her Son, the Saviour of the world is born, are here for you to think upon as well—for you to ponder in your heart. Of course, you ponder all of this with a heart of faith and so you see in this Christmas story what the world does not see. Those without faith see in all these things only fable and myth, but you behold the joy of your salvation; you see God’s love come down from heaven to rescue you from sin, and from death, and from the power of the evil foe. You behold there, in the new life lying in the manger of Bethlehem, new life that is given for you; you see your baptismal rebirth as children of God, “as heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” as Saint Paul says.

And you see it all tonight, dear friends, with more than just a pondering heart. You see your Saviour, born for you and your salvation, in the flesh—in His true Body and Blood given for you to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for your life and salvation. The second century Church Father, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, said that the Lord’s Supper is “the medicine of immortality,” the same “full and holy cure” that the hymn writer says we have in Christ’s holy birth. And this is because Jesus, the Saviour of the world, is born for you in order that He might die for you, and by His death make full atonement for all your sins. And God’s forgiveness purchased and won for you with His innocent suffering and death, is given to you tonight, for you to receive by faith.

This is indeed “a great and mighty wonder, a full and holy cure.” Therefore, with the angels we proclaim, “to God on high be glory and peace to all the earth!” Merry Christmas, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ! Amen.