Christmas – It’s about sin

When they are asked what they think about when they think about Christmas most people say something like ‘presents,’ ‘food’ or ‘time spent with family.’ Those who are of a more traditional bent may mention the birth of Jesus. However, what almost nobody associates with Christmas is sin.

Nevertheless a good case can be made for saying that to properly understand Christmas you need to think about sin. This is because, as the Angel told the Virgin Mary, the purpose of Jesus coming into the world at the first Christmas was to ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Or, as St. Paul puts it, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15).

Our Anglican forebears, being better acquainted with the Scriptures and the Christian tradition than most people are today, were well aware of the connection between Christmas and sin. The whole of the homily on ‘The Nativity and Birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ’ in the Second Book of Homilies, for example, focusses on this connection.

The homily begins by emphasising how blessed by God the first human being was.

‘Among all the creatures that God made in the beginning of the world most excellent and wonderful in their kind, there was none, as Scripture beareth witness, to be compared almost in any point unto man; a who, as well in body and in soul, exceeded all other no less than the sun in brightness and light exceedeth every small and little star in the firmament. He was made according to the image and similitude of God; he was indued with all kind of heavenly gifts; he had no spot of uncleanness in him; he was sound and perfect in all parts, both outwardly and inwardly; his reason was uncorrupt; his understanding was pure and good; his will was obedient and godly; he was made altogether like unto God in righteousness, in holiness, in wisdom, in truth, to be short, in all kind of perfection. When he was thus created and made, Almighty God, in token of his great love towards him, chose out a special place of the earth for him, namely, Paradise; where he lived in all tranquility and pleasure, having great abundance of worldly goods, and lacking nothing that he might justly require or desire to have. For, as it is said (Psalm 8:6–8), God made him lord and ruler over all the works of his hands, that he should have under his feet all sheep and oxen, all beasts of the field, all fowls of the air, all fishes of the sea, and use them always at his own pleasure, according as he should have need. Was not this a mirror of perfection? Was not this a full, perfect, and blessed estate? Could any thing else be well added hereunto? or greater felicity desired in this world?’

However, the homily says, this state of blessedness did not last.

‘But, as the common nature of all men is in time of prosperity and wealth to forget not only themselves but also God, even so did this first man Adam: who, having but one commandment at God’s hand, namely, that he should not eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and ill, did notwithstanding most unmindfully, or rather most willfully, break it, in forgetting the strait charge of his Maker, and giving ear to the crafty suggestion of that wicked serpent the devil. Whereby it came to pass, that, as before he was blessed, so now he was accursed; as before he was loved, so now he was abhorred; as before he was most beautiful and precious, so now he was most vile and wretched, in the sight of his Lord and Maker. Instead of the image of God, he was become now the image of the devil; instead of the citizen of heaven, he was become the bond slave of hell; having in himself no one part of his former purity and cleanness, but being altogether spotted and defiled; insomuch that now he seemed to be nothing else but a lump of sin, and therefore by the just judgment of God was condemned to everlasting death.’

This ‘so great and miserable a plague’ did not just fall upon Adam, but on all subsequent human beings so that:

‘…the whole brood of Adam’s flesh should sustain the selfsame fall and punishment which their forefather by his offence most justly had deserved. St. Paul in the fifth chapter to the Romans saith, By the offence of only Adam the fault came upon all men to condemnation, and by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners’ (Romans 5:18-19).

As a result, declares the homily, the witness of Scripture is that:

‘Before Christ’s coming into the world, all men universally were nothing else but a wicked and crooked generation,[1] rotten and corrupt trees,[2] stony ground,[3] full of brambles and briers,[4] lost sheep,[5] prodigal sons,[6] naughty and unprofitable servants,[7] unrighteous stewards,[8] workers of iniquity,[9] the brood of adders,[10] blind guides,[11] sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,[12] to be short, nothing else but children of perdition and inheritors of hell fire.’

It is in the light of this teaching that we are truly able to understand the ‘great commodity and profit’ brought to us ‘miserable and sinful creatures’ through the coming of Jesus into our world. This is because when we were lost in sin in the way just described:

‘The end of his coming was to save and deliver his people,[13] to fufil the law for us,[14] to bear witness unto the truth,[15] to teach and preach the words of his Father,[16] to give light unto the world,[17] to call sinners to repentance,[18] to refresh them that labour and be heavy laden,[19] to cast out the prince of this world,[20] to reconcile us in the body of his flesh,[21] to dissolve the works of the devil, [22]last of all, to become a propitiation for our sins,[23] and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.[24] These were the chief ends wherefore Christ became man, not for any profit that should come to himself thereby but only for our sakes; that we might understand the will of God, be partakers of his heavenly light, be delivered out of the devil’s claws, released from the burden of sin, justified through faith in his blood, and finally received up into everlasting glory, there to reign with him for ever. Was not this a great and singular love of Christ towards mankind, that, being the express and lively image of God,[25] he would notwithstanding humble himself, and take upon him the form of a servant,[26] and that only to save and redeem us? O how much are we bound to the goodness of God in this behalf! How many thanks and praises do we owe unto him for this our salvation, wrought by his dear and only Son Christ: who became a pilgrim in earth, to make us citizens in heaven; who became the Son of man, to make us the sons of God; who became obedient to the law, to deliver us from the curse of the law;[27]who became poor, to make us rich;[28] vile to make us precious; subject to death, to make us live forever. What greater love could we seely[29] creatures desire or wish to have at God’s hands?’

Because this is what Jesus has done for us, concludes the homily:

‘Therefore, dearly beloved, let us not forget this exceeding love of our Lord and Saviour; let us not shew ourselves unmindful or unthankful towards him: but let us love him, fear him, obey him, and serve him.  Let us confess him with our mouths, praise him with our tongues, believe on him with our hearts, and glorify him with our good works. Christ is the light: let us receive the light. Christ is the truth: let us believe the truth. Christ is the way: let us follow the way.[30] And, because he is our only Master, our only Teacher,[31] our only Shepherd [32]and Chief Captain, therefore let us become his servants, his scholars, his sheep, and his soldiers. As for sin, the flesh, the world, and the devil, whose servants and bondslaves we were before Christ’s coming, let us utterly cast them off, and defy them, as the chief and only enemies of our soul. And, seeing we are once delivered from their cruel tyranny by Christ, let us never fall into their hands again, lest we chance to be in worse case than ever we were before. Happy are they, saith Scripture, that continue to the end.[33] Be faithful, saith God, until death, and I will give thee a crown of life.[34] Again he saith in another place: He that putteth his hand unto the plough, and looketh back, is not meet for the kingdom of God.[35] Therefore let us be strong, steadfast, and unmoveable, abounding always in the works of the Lord.[36] Let us receive Christ, not for a time, but for ever; let us believe his word, not for a time, but for ever; let us become his servants, not for a time, but for ever; in consideration that he hath redeemed and saved us, not for a time, but forever; and will receive us into his heavenly kingdom, there to reign with him, not for a time, but for ever. To him therefore with the Father and the Holy Ghost be all honour, praise, and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

What the homily teaches us takes us to the heart of the Christmas message. May we believe it, take it to heart, proclaim it and live it out in our lives.

[1] Deuteronomy 32:5.

[2] Matthew 7:17.

[3] Mark 4:5,16.

[4] Hebrews 6:8.

[5] Jeremiah 50:6.

[6] Luke 15:6,13.

[7] Luke 17:10.

[8] Matthew 24:48, Luke 16:8.

[9] Luke 13:27.

[10] Matthew 12:34.

[11] Matthew 23:24.

[12] Luke 1:79.

[13] Matthew 1:21

[14] Matthew 5:17.

[15] John 18:37.

[16] Luke 4:17-21,43.

[17] John 8:12.

[18] Matthew 9:13.

[19] Matthew 11:28.

[20] John 12:31.

[21] Colossians 1:21-22,

[22] 1 John 3:8.

[23] Romans 3:25.

[24] 1 John 2:2.

[25] Hebrews 1:3.

[26] Philippians 2:7-8.

[27] Galatians 3:13, 4:4-5.

[28] 2 Corinthians 8:9.

[29] ‘Silly’ or ‘foolish.’

[30] John 12:46, 14:6.

[31] Matthew 23:8,10.

[32] John 6:68, 10:16.

[33] Matthew 10:22.

[34] Revelation 2:10.

[35] Luke 9:62.

[36] 1 Corinthians 15:58.