Make no mistake about it, this little Child sitting on Mary’s lap is perfect God and perfect Man. He’s the God-Man, “Immanuel” – God with us. As the Bible says, “God so loved the world,” the whole human race, that He came out of eternity into time so that we might see Him and be reunited with Him. As Isaiah proclaims to us tonight: “For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be on His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
That all sounds very nice, but perhaps it sounds a bit too abstract, a bit too disconnected from real life. After all, we want something real and down to earth. And guess what? God knows that. In fact, that’s how He created the world in which we live. There is a natural order to life in this universe: normally life functions through physical matter. Think of vegetable life. It works through flowers, plants, and trees. Think of animal life. It also works through physical matter, namely, animal bodies. And human life? Yes, we too live life in and with physical bodies. I’ll bet you’ve never seen a baby without a body!
So, the Lord of all life comes into this world, not in a blaze of glory to drive people to their knees, but in a way that fits with His own created, natural order, in a way that draws us to Himself – in a body. God manifests Himself in the flesh. The eternal God becomes a little Baby! As one favorite Christmas hymn says:
“Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!” (LSB 380:2).
But that still might seem a bit too abstract, a bit to disconnected from real life. We know the story quite well. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.” Imagine that: God in diapers! God nursing at His mother’s breast! Almighty God who cannot yet hold His head up straight! The Creator of all things with tiny hands and fingers that cannot yet grasp anything! God became one of us so that we can recognize and receive Him. “But that was some 2000 years ago!” you might say. “I believe all of this is quite true and beautiful. But how does it change my life here and now?”
Yes, God came in the flesh at Bethlehem many centuries ago. But it’s more than a history lesson or a cute, heart-warming, inspirational story. God became Man – God took on our human flesh and blood – to change our life even today. Children may not have a hard time seeing the reality of the Christmas story, but we adults seem to. We think of the Christmas story as, well, ancient history. We want something to help us make sense of our life here and now. We want something to help us deal with the selfishness that we suffer from other people. We need something to help us deal with the selfishness that we inflict on people around us. We might even ask, “Where is Bethlehem today?” Dear friends, Bethlehem is right here, tonight, before our very eyes. Bethlehem is right here at the Altar, in the Holy Communion.
Pastor Berthold von Schenk wrote about Christmas this way in his book, The Presence:
What is Christmas to most people? Candles, lighted trees, carols, presents, happy faces. How touching! How beautiful! Isn’t Christmas lovely? With some, it is a little more. How they love to hear the story of a young peasant maid who came to Bethlehem, who, finding no room in the inn, gives birth to her first child in a stable. With reverence they listen to the Christmas sermon as the preacher begins to rationalize on Christmas. But this must leave us unsatisfied. We feel in our inner selves that Christmas must be more than this. And it is. Christmas must be experienced. The shepherds experienced Christmas. There they found the Christ-Child and made known abroad what they had heard and seen. Through the Communion, we too have a sure way to appreciate the Manger-Child (p. 54).Yes, as Pastor von Schenk says, Christmas must be experienced. Lighted trees, presents, and happy faces are fine things, but they are not the beating, living heart of Christmas. Hearing the Christmas story told in reading, preaching, and song is also very fine, but there’s still more. Bethlehem must come here to us today. We need the God-Man, Immanuel, the God who was born of a pure Virgin, to come and rescue us from the darkness of our sin and death. And that’s exactly what He does in the Holy Communion. Here is your Bethlehem! Here is God in the flesh for you! Here is the best way for you to experience Christmas. All of the other things are wrapping paper and pretty bows. Here, on the Altar, you have the truest, most genuine Christmas gift: the God-Man giving Himself in Body and Blood under the bread and wine for you.
Here’s the reality and down to earth life of Bethlehem that we need and crave. We live in a world that says, “Find your meaning in money” or “Find fulfillment in the many electronic toys from Best Buy or Circuit City.” The TV and the Internet train us to find our fulfillment in pleasing ourselves at the click of the remote or the computer mouse. But we human beings were not made for such shallow things. We were not made to be automatons that merely seek the next little thrill for a quick fix. Besides, focusing on ourselves in these ways leaves us very unfulfilled, even frustrated. And we end up taking our frustrations out on people around us, on those near and dear to us, even on our fellow Christians. Deep down, we know there’s something more to life. And Bethlehem on the Altar delivers it.
In our second reading St. Paul describes the glorious fruit of Christmas, the joys of Bethlehem on the Altar for us. He says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” When we experience Christmas at the Lord’s Altar, we learn how to do just that, how to live godly lives in the present age. We see how our Lord has honored us by becoming one of us. We see how He honors the whole human race. We see how His love for us begins to radiate in us and through us toward the people around us. We see that our real meaning and fulfillment come from the God who loves us enough to become one of us.
You see, God so loved the world that He came into the world. He came into the world to lift us up to Himself, to restore us to His life and His love. The very flesh and blood Son of God born of the Virgin Mary comes here today. He’s the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, who spilled His innocent blood on the cross. He’s the same Lord of life who conquered death by dying and then rising again on the third day. And He gives you this life in His Body and Blood on the Altar. “Veiled in [Meal] the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”
So, where is Bethlehem? It’s right here at the Altar. How do you experience Christmas aright? Right here at the Altar, eating and drinking the very Body and Blood of the God-Man, the Manger-Child, the God-with-us, Immanuel. And with the eyes of faith, you will see on this Altar not merely bread and wine, but the Christ-Child, the Word made flesh. And then you can imitate Mother Mary by treasuring all these things, pondering them in your hearts. And then you can leave here imitating the shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all that you have heard and seen…and tasted, as it has been told you. Amen.