Sermon Archives

Friday, December 25, 2015
The Nativity of our Lord (Christmas Day)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Glory and Vulnerability

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Good morning and merry Christmas!

In February earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go to Israel with my seminary classmates for two weeks. We began our trip by the Sea of Galilee and visited many sites in the north side of the country. On the second half of the trip, we focused on the south side of the country. Many of the places that we visited are etched into my memory. One such site was the Church of the Nativity, located in Bethlehem.

In 326, Constantine and his mother Helena, commissioned a church to be built over the place where it is traditionally thought that Jesus was born. The church was large and spacious, it was dark, and there was lots of scaffolding. There were gilded glass lamps in a variety of colours hanging from the ceiling, a sign of beauty in an otherwise austere space.

The focal point for the visit is found in a rectangular cavern beneath the church. This cave is called the Grotto of the Nativity, which has been venerated as the site of Christ’s birth since at least the 2nd century. There is a silver star in the floor which marks the spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The Gospels that have a Nativity story don’t really talk about the manger being located in a cave, but on the trip I learned that dwellings in Israel were often in caves because they make construction easier.

In order to get to the grotto, we stood in a long single file of pilgrims and tourists winding our way slowly down the narrow stairs. As I knelt down to touch the star on the floor behind the rail and say a prayer, the lowliness of the setting struck me. I think it was a combination of the scaffolding, the sparsely decorated building, the cave, and the location of this site tucked away from the bustle, complexity and importance of Jerusalem. It was not a place that easily lent itself to sentimentality or romantic notions.

The entrance to this church is known as the “Door of Humility.” It is a small doorway only about 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from their horse as they entered the holy place.

This place seemed to be asking me to put away my notions of what the Church of the Nativity should look like or feel like, and allow my faith to engage with the unglamorous conditions of that church and that cave.

The humility that this place asks of its guests, reflects the humility of the event that the site commemorates, the birth of a baby in a manger in a cave in a small town.

Now, you might be wondering why we are talking about the nativity, when we’ve just read the Prologue to the Gospel of John?

It is true that the nativity is not the story that the Gospel of John presents us with this Christmas morning. But the Prologue is John’s version of the birth of Jesus.

However, instead of starting with the birth of John the Baptist, as Mark and Luke do or with a traditional genealogy, as Matthew does, John starts at the very beginning of time. John gives us another creation story, introducing his version using the first words of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning.”

The Prologue is a well-known and much loved section of the Bible, a majestic and glorious summary of the entire gospel of John. The Prologue is more hymn than prose, more conceptual than narrative.

As I studied this passage, I found myself in deeper and deeper water – it is so big and so all-encompassing and laden with mystery. It presents us with the mystery of the Trinity – the distinct persons and their unity. It presents us with the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, or the incarnation. It describes an abstract and mystical notion of the divine, in fact Jesus is not named until v.17. This passage was featured in the christological debates at the Council of Nicea which led to a refinement of our understanding of who Jesus is, in theological terms. I toyed for a moment with preaching on the Council of Nicea - I’m sure it would have been a much appreciated Christmas day sermon! =)

The creche procession narrative and the Luke reading last night offer a constrasting glimpse into who Jesus is from our John reading this morning. On the one hand, we have Jesus, the Messiah, quietly slipping into our world one night, in the form of a helpless and vulnerable baby, the child of parents without “proper” domestic accomodation. On the other hand, we have Jesus, the Word that was with God and was God, through whom all things came into being, a light shining in the darkness which cannot be overcome. We are given the gift of the tension between the two images of God in the vulnerability of a baby and in the glorious majesty of a divine Creator.

This Advent season I found myself reflecting on the L’Arche movement, a network of 147 communities in 35 countries, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in communities of faith. L’Arche celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It was founded by Jean Vanier, a philosopher and a Catholic social innovator. One of Vanier’s guiding beliefs is that there is strength in weakness, and he sees Jesus as the paradigm of this truth. In an interview, he talks about how those who are marginalized and considered weak can restore balance in our world.

He says: “The balance of our world frequently is seen as a question of power. That if I have more power and more knowledge, more capacity, then I can do more.” But to counter this belief he gives the example of a father playing with his child: “Maybe a father is a strong man and businessman, and when he comes home, he gets down on his hands and knees and plays with the children. [In this moment,] it's the child that is teaching the father something about tenderness, about love, about looking at the needs of the child, the face of the child, the hands of the child, relating to the child. … The incredible thing about children is [that] they're unified in their body — whereas we, we can be very disunified. We can say one thing and feel another. A child can teach us about unity, about fidelity and about love, so it is [with] people with disabilities. It's the same sort of beauty and purity and they say to us, 'Our world is not just a world of competition divided into the weakest and the strongest. Everybody has their place.'1

This tender moment that Vanier describes between a father and child, shows us how powerful and transformative the child’s presence is. There is a way in which when we love those who are most powerless and vulnerable in our society, we come into contact with our own need to love and be loved.

The stark difference between the strong and the weak dissolves. When we allow that to happen, we see the glory of God shining into our world. Vanier calls this the ‘equilibrium of the heart’.

The birth of Jesus reveals how strength and vulnerability coexist in God. It kindles our faith to believe that God has transformed and continues to transform our world by means that we could not have imagined.

May God’s greatest gift, becoming one with our glorious and broken humanity, be present to you in this season and in the year to come. Amen.

1 Interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, The Wisdom of Tenderness. Available at: