From the sermon,
“The Word was made flesh”
by Frederic Farrar, 1831-1903
Through the fact, through the mystery, through all the life and teaching of our Lord, there is one lesson, which, if we could but grasp it, would be a lifelong source of strength, of purity, of ennobling peace. It is the grandeur of that human nature which God has given us; the sacredness, the majesty, the lofty privileges, the immeasurable possibilities of man.
It is a revelation altogether new. Look at man in the light of nature. We look upwards, and, seeing the galaxies of stars, the myriads of planets and moons and suns and systems, our nothingness is burnt into us and we are tempted to think of ourselves as infinitesimal atoms, the creatures of a passing moment, the prey of blind forces in the blinding whirl of chance.
We look downwards, and seeing the earth wrinkled with her innumerable graves, "dead species, dead genera, dead generations, dead epochs, a universe of death" the very dust of the world made of the decay of unnumbered organisms we are tempted to believe that nothing remains for us but dust to dust, that the grave is the universal end and the worm the universal conqueror.
We look around, and seeing the vanity and vileness of mankind, seeing races wholly given up to various idolatries, seeing that the dark places of the earth are the habitations of cruelty, seeing man savage and man civilised alike abandoning himself to passions of dishonour and given over to the lowest instincts, we are tempted to despise our being. We turn to communities nominally Christian and we see them tainted by greed, given over to lies, besotted by drink, the bond-slaves of base and brutal appetites. We turn to biography, and it is chiefly a record of human sorrows; to history, and it tells of ages of crime and error; to the poets, and their songs are full of sadness and despondency.
And when we dwell on all this and look each at the plague of our own hearts, we blush for ourselves, we blush for our race, we say that “however we brazen it out, we men are a little breed.” It is such thoughts that drive men into the devil's gospel of despair and materialism; it is from the exclusive contemplation of man in his lowest nature that many are led to say so wearily that life is not worth living; that it is:
“A life of nothings, nothing worth
from that first nothing at our birth
to that last nothing under the earth.”
Now turn from the shadow, face the sun! Turn away your eyes from the phenomena of evil and ruin, and look at the manger-cradle of Bethlehem. Look at man in the light of the Incarnation and see how all is changed! The Jesus, who is Christ the Lord, was the perfect man, the representative man, man in the image of God, God as a man with men; God not merely revealing himself to man, not merely uniting himself to man, but God becoming a man. We do not judge of the tree from the blighted trunk, the cankered leaves, the bitter roots but from its glory of foliage, of blossom and of fruit. We do not estimate the ship from the miserable wreck which the rocks have gored and the waves shattered and the winds flung in scorn upon the shore but from the gallant barque, when, with streaming flag and bellying sails, “she walks the waters like a thing of life.” Even so we must take our estimate of man, not from the churl and the villain, not from the liar and the scoundrel, not from the selfish miser and the staggering drunkard, not from the indolence of the slothful and the wretchedness of the depraved; not from the harlot and the felon and those yet more guilty, who made them what they are, but from the pure, the good, the spiritually-minded. These alone are true men and true women; the others are but the blight of men and women, the wrecks of what once were, or what once should have been, those gracious things. In the light from Bethlehem's cradle, we see man not as he too often is, but as he may be, as we trust that he yet will be. We see his darkness dispelled by a divine light, his nature transfigured with an illumination not of earth. Saint Anselm wrote a famous book with the title, “Cur Deus Homo?” (“Why did God become Man?”) And one answer at least to that question is to teach us that “we are greater than we know.” God became man that man might become as God; that he might be a little higher than the angels, instead of a little lower than the brutes.
And in the light of this truth, we escape from that snare of the devil which would lead us to despise our human nature.
We say, “I trust in the nobleness of human nature, in the majesty of its faculties, in the fullness of its mercy, in the joy of its love.”
And, ah! my friends, do not regard this as a mere vague trust, a mere abstract speculation. It is a belief which may affect every day of our lives, in the twofold blessedness of duty and of love. It affects our estimate of ourselves; affects our conduct to others. There is not one degradation of our personal being which does not spring from lack of reverence for ourselves as those whom Christ has redeemed, to whom he has given a right to be children of God. The Incarnation teaches us that our part is in Christ, our bodies his temple, our nature his image, our hearts his shrine. He that takes a mean estimate of his own being, he who regards himself as akin only to the beasts that perish, and destined to no higher end than they, will live as they do. He who looks on himself as immortal, as a child of God, as partaker of the nature which Christ wore and Christ redeemed, he will hold himself ever more and more bounden to aim at a noble and godly life.
Thus, then, the Incarnation, rightly apprehended, becomes the basis of all noble conceptions of our human life.
In the light of the Son of God becoming flesh, we dare not degrade or disesteem ourselves. We see how base an apostasy it is to abnegate the divine prerogative of our being. The birth of Christ becomes to us the pledge of immortality, the inspiration of glad, unerring, life-long duty to ourselves. And no less does it bring home to us the new commandment of love to our brethren. It becomes the main reason why we should love one another. If men were indeed what Satan makes them, and makes us try to believe that they solely are hopelessly degraded, unimaginably vile; if human life be nothing at the best but the shadow of a passing and miserable dream, I know not how we could love one another. We could only turn with loathing from all the vice and canker, the mortal corruption, the manifold baseness of many lives. How is all transfigured, how is the poorest wretch earth ever bore transfigured, when we remember that for these Christ became man, for these he died Shall we, ourselves so weak, so imperfect, so stained with evil, shall we dare to despise these whom Christ so loved that for them yea, for these blind and impotent men these publicans and sinners, these ragged prodigals of humanity still voluntarily lingering among their husks and swine for these, even for these, he, so pure, so perfect, took our nature upon him and went, step by step, down all that infinite descent Despise them? Ah! the revealing light of the God-man shows too much darkness in ourselves to leave any possibility for pride. We take our own seats among the lepers on the Temple steps; prostrate with them we stretch blind hands of faith and prayer to God.
“We are all equally guilty, we are all equally redeemed.”
Standing beside the cradle of the Lord all humanity becomes precious, becomes immortal. It becomes to us a sacred and blessed duty to pity the afflicted, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to comfort the sick, to bring home the wanderers, to undo the heavy burden and let the oppressed go free. If even Christian men saw this duty they would not live as so many of them do. But if we have learnt the lesson of Christmas, the lesson of Bethlehem, let us live to counteract the works of the devil; let it be the one aim of our lives to love and not to hate; to help, not to hinder ; to succour them that are tempted, not to add to and multiply their temptations; to make men better, not worse; to make life a little happier, not more deeply miserable; to speak kindly words, not all words that may do hurt; to console and to encourage, not to blister and envenom weak and suffering souls; to live for others, not for ourselves; to look each of us not on his own things, but on the things of others; to think noble thoughts of man as well as of God; to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven us.