The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018

When I was a child, we had a ritual on Christmas morning.  We’d wake up early and go and find that the stockings with our names on them had been filled with treats and small gifts by Saint Nick or Santa Claus during the night, and we’d open those gifts.  Then we’d move onto the tree, where we’d open the larger gifts that had mysteriously appeared during the night.  After the great unwrapping, we’d move on to breakfast, and after breakfast to a series of phone calls.  My sister and I would first call our grandmother to wish her a Merry Christmas and to detail the list of gifts we’d received—in great detail.  I remember writing down these lists just so I wouldn’t forget anything.  After we phoned my grandmother, we would phone my great-grandmother, and she would hear the same list.  The afternoon was usually spent assembling some toy or game and then visiting family, often taking one of the gifts we’d received along to play with and share with cousins or aunts and uncles.

There was something exciting about receiving those gifts; I looked forward to it—so much so that it was always hard to go to sleep on Christmas eve night—and I also looked forward to telling my family about what I’d been given—to playing with toys or wearing new clothes that were my Christmas gifts.  “What did you get for Christmas?” was the question on every relative’s lips.  I wonder if you’ve been asked that already—what did you get for Christmas?  What was your answer?  What was on your list?

It seems easy to talk about the boxes that we unwrap from beneath the tree as gifts; they’re so tangible and so much a part of the holiday season.  But the great gift, the gift of Christ’s incarnation, is perhaps not as tangible, not as easy to comprehend as something that comes in a box and wrapping paper, tied up with a bow.  And yet it is the greatest gift—the thing which we celebrate, even in our own gift giving—the thing that changes our lives.

Saint John reveals the great mystery of the Incarnation in these words:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” 

I want to share with you another sermon that describes the Incarnation this way; these are the words of another Saint John, Saint John Chrysostom, 4th C archbishop of Constantinople, which he preached on Christmas Day:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants' bands. For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking our flesh, He gives us His Spirit; And so, He bestowing and we receiving, He prepares for us the treasure of Life. He takes our flesh, to sanctify us; He gives us His Spirit, that He may save us.[1]

 John Chrysostom says, “This wonder fills me with astonishment.”   This gift, this child in a manger, very God become flesh, is unwrapped!  Christ gives himself to us; God gives us his eternal Word.  When we receive a great gift, it’s an exciting moment, isn’t it?  It’s an exciting moment, a good feeling, and in that moment of excitement, we say thank you to the giver.  Take some time this Christmas to give thanks for that great gift—not only to say thank you, but really to rejoice—to delight in the wonder and astonishment of the Incarnation.  God desires you so much that he condescends to take on flesh—to live among us—and even to die a death on the cross.  What greater love is there than this?  Friends, there is no greater gift than the gift of God’s love.  If you have any doubt about who you are or how you feel today, remember that you have received—that the world has received—the greatest gift imaginable—God’s own presence with, in, and among us.  Our God is not a God who is far away or a God who is inaccessible.  Our God comes among us with power and might as a little child.  Our God rules with a rule of love.  Our God, in Christ, has a fleshly body that knows our own sufferings, our own griefs, our own hopes, and our own joys.  Even in the midst of our sinful state, God loves us and comes among us.  You are beloved, brothers and sisters.  Unwrap that gift, revel in the sheer wonder of it, give thanks, and rejoice! 

When you’ve received a gift you really love, a gift that shows the love of the giver, you want to share that joy.  That phone call to my grandmother on Christmas Day wasn’t about listmaking—it was about a genuine and authentic response to the delight of having received a gift—a genuine chance to give thanks in the telling of someone else.  And we are called to do the same—to tell the story of God’s love for us—sometimes using words.  Spend some time this Christmas reflecting on God’s love for you, delighting in it.  Really let it sink in.  Unwrap that gift and revel in it!  You won’t be able to help but share God’s love with your friends, your family, your neighbor, your coworker—just in the way that you live your life, in the way that you rejoice in being loved.  And it’s okay to use words, too—to tell yourself and others of God’s love—that they are loved.  Even if you can’t feel that inside, take some time to focus on it anyway—to pray about it.  Maybe your prayer to God becomes, “Help me to receive your love.”  And follow up with a “Thank you.”  A friend recently reminded me that the writer Anne Lamot has two great prayers:  “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”[2]  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  If you can’t feel “Thank you” today, try out “Help me give thanks.”  For that’s part of what we are here to do, isn’t it?  Every liturgy of Morning Prayer and every Eucharist begin with thanksgiving and praise.  We bless God, we sing the Gloria or a hymn of praise. We give thanks for God’s great goodness in making us and in being known to us.  John says, “This Wonder fills me with astonishment.”  We say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

That gratitude, friends, is a spiritual practice.  Like Anne Lamot says, it is a prayer, and it changes us.  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  That grace changes us.  Listen again to what John Chrysostom says is going on in the incarnation:  “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking our flesh, He gives us His Spirit; And so, He bestowing and we receiving, He prepares for us the treasure of Life. He takes our flesh, to sanctify us; He gives us His Spirit, that He may save us.”

He assumes our body that we may assume his Word.  He gives us his Spirit.  He sanctifies and saves us.  Do those seem like powerful words to you?  John seems to me to be referencing Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, only a few decades his elder, who wrote, “God became human that humans might become God.” [3]  Do those words cause you to sit upright?  They seem almost heretical at first, don’t they?  Athanasius is not suggesting that we are God—or even like God.  God is God, and we are not, and don’t we know it all too well!  But Athanasius’s claim is even more provocative than that—God is about the work of drawing us to himself—of enfolding us into the divine heart.  God is making us a part of God’s own kingdom, God’s reality, God’s own self.  We are being recreated, renewed, and restored.  “He takes our flesh to sanctify us.  He gives us his Spirit, that he may save us,” John says.  

The great gift of the incarnation, friends, is not only that God comes among us—but that God is drawing us to himself!  That we are coming to be among God!  That in the fullness of time, we will be with our Creator, who made us and loves us and desires us.  There is no greater gift than this.  The Eucharist today shows us again that great love—God’s love in coming among us through his incarnation; his self-emptying, self-offering sacrifice in his death on the cross; his triumph over sin and death in his glorious resurrection, and his present and abiding Spirit—present in the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood that we receive, the real presence of Christ with us to feed and sustain us.  When you receive the consecrated host today, the sacrament of Holy Communion, the priest will say, “the Body of Christ.”  You, brothers and sisters, are the Body.  You are becoming enfolded into the divine will—into the very heart of God.  Receive that gift in love and gratitude, and remember Christ’s presence with us. 

We rejoice in God and receive as a gift that grace upon grace.  We can say thank you, and tell and show others that great gift of God’s love.  And in that gift—by its very giving, we are changed.  Saint John the Evangelist tells us that “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”  That same God desires to enfold us into his own heart.

Let the light of Christ shine in your hearts.  Rejoice and give thanks.  Revel in God’s abundant love.  And be restored in him.

 In the name of God, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.




[1] John Chrysostom, "Christmas Morning," Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: A Manual of Preaching, Spiritual Reading and Meditation,” Volume 1, trans. and ed. M. F. Toal (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) 110-117, as published online at,-John-on-the-Incarnation,-Sermon-on-Christmas-Day.php (12/28/2012).

[2] Anne Lamot, Traveling Mercies.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A version of this sermon was first preached at Grace Church in New York on 12/30/2012.