Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A New Human Might be the Answer

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2006

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in the middle of the 19th century a hymn which, while not a Christmas carol, is not a little about our celebration tonight:
Praise to the holiest in the height
And in the depth be praise,
In all his words most wonderful,
Most sure in all his ways!

O loving wisdom of our God! 
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight,
And to the rescue came.
 Certainly not all, but by far the majority of Christians who gather tonight and tomorrow to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth believe that his life was qualitatively different from that of the average human being.  It took the church several hundred years to figure out exactly how it was going to talk about this difference that it saw and experienced in Jesus.  Along the way we made some stupendous blunders.  We said on occasion that there was nothing really human about Jesus, that he only appeared to be so.  And we said on other occasions that Jesus was just a human like the rest of us, except for one part or another—sometimes soul, sometimes mind, sometimes will—that an analogous divine part trumped and took over. 
            In truth, all of the history of Christian thought, in some ways, can be said to be an attempt to answer this bedeviling question, “Who is Jesus?” and to articulate the response in such a way that he is credibly the answer to the world’s dilemma.  Or, more strongly put, we keep trying to answer that question in a way that Jesus will clearly simultaneously answer the world’s deepest hungers and needs.  People who ride around with bumper stickers saying, “Jesus is the Answer” are part of a long tradition, despite the sad truth that we sometimes don’t know what the question is any longer.
            And yet, we do know what the question is.  In a word, it is “How can we get out of the fix we are in?”  Every religious tradition starts with an assumption that we humans are in a predicament.  Some think it is something that we have brought upon ourselves.  Some think that it is not so simple as that.  Each tradition offers a way out, a way beyond.
Not by any means the only story we as Christians tell, but clearly one of the most significant, is that, as the New England Primer put it in the 17th century, “In Adam’s Fall we sinned all.”  I am not particularly a fan of the doctrine of original sin.  In fact, I do not find it biblical at all.  But I do find something compelling about the Adam story.  (And I want to leave Eve out of this for a moment, not the least reason for which is that I think she often gets blamed unfairly for a whole mess of things.  “Adam” means, roughly, “earthling,” and is intended to be a generic name for human beings, both male and female.)  The Story that we tell is that it all began back in the beginning.  Earlier today, when King’s College Cambridge celebrated its world famous Lessons and Carols, the very first reading is exactly this story, the story of what took place in the Garden of Eden.  It is a story about how the earthlings were given a vocation to tend to their world, which was a peaceable kingdom.  They were given nearly blanket permission to do whatever they liked.  There was present in the system, however, a dynamic of grasping, written right into the fabric of things.  And while limitations were clearly placed upon the inhabitants of the Garden, those limits were unable to match the power of grasping.  So when the earthlings quickly found something that was pretty to look at, good to eat, and desired to make them wise, they grasped.  They forgot both vocation and limitation, as well as the nearly unfettered permission they held.  They grasped for what was not theirs. 
            What the story is trying to say is that that is the human dilemma.  The story is timeless and the story is true.  It is timeless because it did not happen once upon a time.  It happens all the time.  It is true not because it is in the Bible but it is in the Bible because it is true.  The problem with being human is the same as the gift of being human.  Written into our deepest genetic code is the proclivity to push the envelope, to exceed set limitations, to forge beyond the parameters of the known and safe and to risk everything to achieve or acquire or attain something hitherto beyond the fringe.  It is the human dilemma because we cannot stop it.  The only way we could stop it would be to cease being human.   Take away the thrust that leads us to grasp what is not ours and at the same time you take away the thrust that leads us to new discoveries and accomplishments.  It is this dilemma, indeed this mystery, that led one of the Church Fathers to refer to Adam’s fall as the felix culpa, the fortunate fall. 
            But let us be clear about it.  We do have a dilemma.  Because we are not very good at abiding by limits, we have created quite a stinking mess of things.  We want and we do not have, so we elbow and push our way to get what we want.  Our thirst for oil sometimes leads us to manipulate whole nations, go to war, and despoil the environment.  Our grasping for power often leads us to ignore those without power, or worse, to trample upon them.  Look at any list of human problems on this planet and see the dilemma in unmistakable terms.  And, what is more, the human problem is not just grasping for what we do not have; it is holding on with a vengeance to what we are afraid of losing.
            You can judge whether this is an accurate picture of the human dilemma or not.  But was Cardinal Newman right in saying that “all was sin and shame”?  I think, frankly, that that might be going a little over the top.  But there is some reason to think that a good deal of it is sin and shame.  It is sin because, to the extent that humans grasp what does not belong to us or what we are afraid of losing, we transgress the very nature of the One in whose image we are created, namely giving:  giving liberally, lavishly, prodigally.  It is shame because we frequently become ashamed of who we are as ordinary human beings, and try to make up for it by inflating ourselves or by denying and repressing the mortal flesh that is ours to live in. 
            And this is the point at which Jesus enters the fray.  He comes as a “Second Adam.”  He is the New Earthling, and he is the model of what we can be.  I can guarantee you that when Mary brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, she was not thinking of Adam, let alone a Second Adam.  But we have taken her baby, and made him our Man, seeing in his life and teaching and death and resurrection what human beings are really like underneath the makeup that we have piled on since the unfortunate incident in the Garden.  We look into that manger, and we see another chance, another crack at being human, a Second Adam.  Cardinal Newman sang,
                                                O wisest love!  That flesh and blood,
                                                Which did in Adam fail,
                                                Should strive afresh against the foe,
                                                Should strive, and should prevail;….

The foe is none other than that whisper in our ears that we can be safe, we can be secure, we can have it all if we only forget our vocation, our permission, and our limitations, and act as if we were our own gods, with no accountability to anyone. 
            The irony of Jesus is that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes grew up and claimed his humanity.  He claimed his freedom.  He did not play along with or into the systems, including religious systems, that make a habit of controlling or limiting people our of fear that, left to their own devices, their grasp would ever exceed their proper reach.  No, he came among us acting like a totally New Adam, healing when it was forbidden, feeding when it had never been done, and teaching us to reach across the boundaries that separate us into haves and have-nots, saints and sinners.  But most of all, he lived this flesh-and-blood life not grasping, but giving.  As St. Paul put it to the Philippians, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and giving himself up to death, even death on a cross.
And that was, in Cardinal Newman’s words, the real marvel:  “…that the highest gift of grace should flesh and blood refine:  God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine.”
            Indeed the downward movement of salvation is just this:  that the New Human, Jesus, joins us in the fray, and demonstrates exactly what we can be when, like him, we accept our humanity as genuine, our flesh as a blessing, and the norm of giving ourselves away as the gateway to Life and Truth.  I once saw what it looked like in a moment that totally amazes me still.  It was half the year away from Christmas Eve.  It was the day when the Church remembers the winning of the fray, when on Good Friday, the Second Adam strove afresh against the foe, strove and prevailed.  We had in one of my parishes the custom of a children’s service on Good Friday.  And, because in Connecticut Good Friday is a school holiday, sometimes many children came.  I had developed a simple service based on the Stations of the Cross.  Instead of moving around the church, however, I would verbally paint the scene of each station and then invite children from the congregation to come and take their places in a tableau.  Then I would offer a few comments on the scene before we moved to the next tableau.
            The time came for the scene in which Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross.  I called for a volunteer to be Simon, and shy little Andrew Cruz let me take him by the hand and place him in the tableau.  It happened that the acolyte was my daughter, Sarah Marsh.  The role of the acolyte was to be Jesus, and so far, the acolyte was carrying the wooden processional cross made of an oak sapling and hung with a crown of unmistakably sharp thorns.  I took Andrew Cruz and placed him in the tableau, taking the cross from Sarah Marsh and letting him hold it, standing behind her.  I proceeded with my little homily on how it is that we are called upon sometimes against our will to do something very difficult, and possibly very special.  Andrew began bawling.  As I turned and looked, I saw “Jesus,” my teenage babysitter, turn around, kneel down, and put her arm around Andrew Cruz, whose mom was already on her way to lead him back to his seat.  And we all sat wide-eyed at the spectacle of Jesus taking back his cross from Simon, and carrying what Simon could not do by himself. 
            We are caught in a world where, if not all, much is, or turns to, sin and shame.  It is scary.  Our knees tremble, our hearts break.  And often, unlike Andrew, we don’t in fact let go and cry, we grit our teeth and soldier on, unable to admit human weakness and equally unable to claim human strength.  If we could solve our dilemma by ourselves we would never need to hear that unto us is born a Savior.  And if you believe that we just might be able to solve our dilemma on our own, then look carefully at first your own life and secondly at human history, not to mention current events.  No, we need a Second Chance, a Second Adam.  And unto us is born this day a Savior who is just that.  The New Human, the Second Adam, comes to us, and shows us how simple flesh and blood, fully human and unashamed, can stoop down to give rather than reach up to grasp, and can thereby heal the world. 
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2006.       

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