Who is the baby Jesus? Get it right, or Santa might punch you in the nose!

Listen to mp3 file
Christmas, Mass during the Day: Dec. 25, 2011
Isa 52:7-10; Ps 98:1-6; Heb 1:1-6; John 1:1-5, 9-14

Did you ever hear the story about the time that Santa Claus punched someone? No? Well, I’ll tell it to you. It happened a very long time ago, almost 17 centuries ago, in a city in what is now Turkey. How it came about—that’s a long story!  And, in fact, it actually has something to do with the Gospel reading we just heard.

And maybe you’re thinking: “Yeah, I can see why that Gospel reading would irritate someone. I was expecting a Christmas reading, with shepherds and angels; and instead that was completely different.”

Well, this reading from the beginning of the Gospel of John really is a Christmas reading—just from a different perspective.

Last night we did hear about the shepherds. And it was great to see Christmas from their perspective, because we were here in the dark—like they were in the dark, watching over their flocks, when suddenly they were startled by angels in a blaze of light. And they followed the angels’ message to find Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. They were eyewitnesses! And they were amazed and joyful. But what were they eyewitnesses of? A baby who would grow up to be a good man; a great teacher; a prophet; a spiritual guide; a religious founder; a saint? Did they fully understand who this baby Jesus was that they had seen?

That was last night. Now, 12 hours later, here we are in the light of day. And rather than the perspective of the shepherds—in the darkness, small, startled—we get the perspective of eternity, of God himself, of brightness. And this perspective is necessary if we are going to understand what the shepherds saw that night.

And so we learn that, from all eternity, God the Father begot God the Son. He is the Word, through whom all things were made. He is the complete revelation of the Father, for he is everything that the Father is. And he took on human nature, becoming man, born as a baby—Jesus Christ, born this day in Bethlehem, true God and true man.

So this was the faith of those who follow Christ. And then, after a couple hundred years, there was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, named Arius, who taught that Jesus was not actually God. He believed that Jesus was not begotten of the Father, but created; that he had been created first, but was not eternal; that he was very close to God, but not actually God. This was different from the truth that Christians had known for centuries! Yet Arius’ views persuaded many bishops and priests. But others opposed his false teaching, led by a bishop named St. Athanasius; and there were constant arguments between them.

What does this all have to do with Santa Claus? Well, during many of the same years that Arius lived in Egypt, there also lived a bishop named St. Nicholas. You’ve probably heard of him! His feast day is Dec. 6; and he is the basis of the figure that Americans now call Santa Claus. St. Nicholas served as bishop in the early 300s in the city of Myra, in what is now Turkey.

So, it came about that, in the year 325 A.D., the first ecumenical council (the first universal council) of the Church was held, to settle this dispute between Arius and his followers, and St. Athanasius and his followers. The council was held in Nicaea—which was also in Turkey, about 300 miles from Myra. And it is said that St. Nicholas was one of the bishops who participated in that council.

So there he was, and Arius was asked to stand and present his views. So he talked on and on about why he believed that Jesus was not actually God. And as he talked, St. Nicholas was becoming more and more angry. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stood up and walked over to Arius—and he punched him, right in the face!

Well, all the other bishops were shocked! This was not acceptable behavior from a bishop—not even then—and they took away the symbols that identified St. Nicholas as a bishop—the pallium he wore and the book of the Gospels he carried—and they put him into a prison cell. That night, the Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared to Nicholas. Jesus asked him, “Why are you here?” And he responded, “Because I love you, my Lord and my God.” And Jesus and Mary gave him back the pallium and the book of the Gospels; and when the others saw this miracle the next day, he was reinstated as a bishop in good standing at that council.

Now, this council had to make a decision about the argument. And a lot rested upon one word—that is, which of two words they would choose. And there was only an iota of difference between the two words—literally! For these two words in the Greek they spoke were exactly the same, except for one letter, the Greek letter iota, which is the letter “i.” Would the council say that Jesus is “homoiousios” with the Father—that what he is is similar to what the Father is; that he is of “similar substance”? Or would they say that Jesus is “homoousios”—that he is the same as what the Father is, of the “same substance”? “Homoiousios” seemed like a good compromise to some, able to include both Arius and Athanasius (and St. Nicholas). But the council didn’t choose the compromise; they chose the precise truth: that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, homoousios with the Father.” Because that council, with St. Nicholas present, wrote the creed we recite every Sunday. And that special word “homoousios” got translated into Latin as “consubstantial,” “of the same substance”; and so, in this revised English translation, we confess that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father.”

But why does it matter? We know that many people today believe that Jesus Christ is just another good man; one good teacher among many; one more prophet, one more religious founder, one more inspiring spiritual guide; one more saint with a really close relationship with God; but not God himself. That he is just one way among many.

But what did St. Nicholas’ ally, St. Athanasius, have to say? He wrote, “God became man so that man might become God.” Christ makes us sharers in his own divine life and relationship with God the Father. Because Christ is the Only Begotten Son of God, he can make us, through baptism, adopted sons and daughters of God the Father. Because he comes from outside the sin and darkness of this world, he is able to rescue us from it. Because he has conquered death, he can make us more than conquerors as well.

And so it makes all the difference what we see when we look at the baby in the manger. If baby Jesus was just one more spiritual teacher, then we can put him away again until next December. But if he is our Lord and God, as St. Nicholas confessed, then that is news worth shouting about! And maybe even worth punching someone!

Well, no. I’m sure St. Nicholas went to confession after that passionate outburst. But look out! If you ignore the gift of Jesus Christ, whom St. Nicholas loved so much, who knows if you will receive something a little more active than coal in your stocking?

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

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