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The Word Made Flesh.
by H. P. Liddon
from Christmastide in St. Paul's: 
Sermons Bearing Chiefly on the Birth of Our Lord and the End of the Year. 
Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1898 [Fifth Edition]
Sermon VIII. for Christmas Day.
ST. JOHN i. 14.
 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

CHRISTMAS DAY, we are all agreed, is the greatest birthday in the year.  It is the birthday of the greatest Man, of the greatest Teacher of men, of the greatest Benefactor of the human race that ever lived.  It is this; but it is also much more.  For as on this day was born One Who, while He is truly man, is also and immeasurably more than man.


He Who was born, as on this day, did not begin to be when He was conceived by His human Mother; since He bad already existed from before all worlds—from an eternity.  His human nature, His human Body, and His human Soul were not, as is the case with us, the whole outfit of His Being; they were, in truth, the least important part of it.  He had already lived for an eternity when He condescended to make a human body and a human soul in an entirely new sense His own, by uniting them to His Divine and Eternal Person; and then He wore them as a garment, and acted through them as through an instrument, during His Life on earth, as He does now in the courts of Heaven.  Thus the Apostle says that He “took upon Him the form of a servant,” (Phil. ii. 7.) and that “He took not on Him the nature of angels, but He took on Him the seed of Abraham “ (Heb. ii. 16.)  and so the Collect for pleads that He “took our nature upon Him, and was as at this time born of a pure Virgin.” And it was in this sense that He became or was made flesh: after having existed from eternity, He united to Himself for evermore a perfect and representative Sample of the bodily and immaterial nature of man, and thus clothed with It, as on this day, He entered into the world of sense and time.  “The Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us.”

It is perhaps not surprising that from the early days of Christianity men should have misconceived or misstated what was meant by this central but mysterious truth of the Christian Creed, the Incarnation of the Eternal Son.  In truth, the misconceptions about it have been and are many and great.

Sometimes Christians have been supposed to hold that two persons were united in Christ, instead of two natures in His single Person; sometimes that the Infinite Being was confined within the bounds of the finite Nature which He assumed; sometimes that God ceased to be really Himself when He thus took on Him man’s nature; sometimes that the Human Nature which He took was absorbed into or annihilated by its union with the Deity.  All the chief misconceptions of the true sense of the Apostles have been successively considered and rejected by the Christian Church; and “the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.  God of the substance of His Father, begotten before all worlds, and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.  Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.  Who although He be God and man, yet is He not two, but one Christ.” (Athanasian Creed.)

Thus did God the Son take the simple out of the dust and lift the poor out of the mire, (Ps. cxiii. 6.) when He raised our frail human nature to the incomparable prerogative of union with Himself.  So real was and is this union, that all the acts, words, and sufferings of Christ’s Human Body, all the thoughts, reasonings, resolves, emotions of His Human Soul, while being properly human, are yet also the acts, words, sufferings, the thoughts, reasonings, resolves, and emotions of the Eternal Son, Who controls all, and imparts to all the value and elevation which belong to the Infinite and the Supreme.  Thus, although Christ suffered in His Human Soul in the garden, and in His Human Body on the Cross, His sufferings acquired an entirely superhuman worth and meaning from the Person of the Eternal Word to Whom His Manhood was joined; and St. Paul goes so far as to say that God purchased the Church with His own Blood (Acts xx. 28.)--meaning that the Blood which was shed by the Crucified was that of a Human Body personally united to God the Son.

It was perhaps inevitable that the question should be asked how such a union of two natures, which differ as the Creator differs from the creature—as the Infinite differs from the finite—was possible.  It might be enough to reply that “with God all things are possible ;" (St. Matt. xix. 26.) all things, at least, which do not contradict His moral Perfections, that is to say, His essential Nature.  And most assuredly no such contradiction can be detected in the Divine Incarnation.  But, in truth, it ought not to be difficult for a being possessed of such a composite nature as is man to answer this question; perhaps such a being as man might have been reasonably expected never to have asked it.  For what is the Incarnation but the union of two natures, the Divine and the human, in a single Person, Who governs both? And what is man, what are you and I, but samples, at an immeasurably lower level, of a union of two totally different substances; one material, the other immaterial, under the presidency and control of a single human personality? What can be more remote from each other in their properties than are matter and spirit? What would be more incredible, antecedently to experience, than the union of such substances as matter and spirit, of a human body and a human soul, in a single personality? Yet that they are so united is a matter of experience to every one of us.  We only do not marvel at it because we are so intimately familiar with it.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, we observe, each within himself, a central authority, directing and controlling, on the one hand, the movements and operations of an animal frame, and on the other the faculties and efforts of an intelligent spirit, both of which find in this central authority or person their point of unity.  How this can be we know not.  We know not how an immaterial essence can dictate its movements to an arm or a leg, but we see that it does this; and we can only escape from the admitted mystery into difficulties far greater than those which we leave behind, by frankly avowing ourselves materialists, and denying that man has anything that can properly be called a soul, or that he is anything more than an oddly agitated mass of bones and muscles.  If we shrink from this, we must recognize, in the composite structure of our own mysterious being, the means of answering the question about the possibility of the Incarnation.  “As the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.” (Athanasian Creed.)  He Who could thus bring together matter and spirit, notwithstanding their utter contrariety of nature, and could constitute out of them a single human personality or being, might surely, if it pleased Him, raise both matter and spirit—a human body and a human soul—to union with His Divinity, under the control of His Eternal Person.  Those who have taken even superficially the measure of the twofold nature of man, ought not to find it hard to understand that for sufficient reasons God and man might be united in a single person, or, as St. John says, that the Word might be made flesh, and might dwell among us.

But what, it may be asked, can be conceived of as moving God thus to join Himself to a created form? Is not such an innovation on the associations, if not on the conditions, of His Eternal Being too great to be accounted for by any cause or motive that we can possibly assign for it?

Here we enter a region in which, it need hardly be said, we dare not indulge our own conjectures as to the fitness of things.  We do not know enough of the Eternal Mind to presume to account for Its resolves by any suppositions of human origin.  If we are to take a single step forward, it must be under the guidance of Revelation.  But when men speak of the Incarnation as an innovation on the Eternal Life of God so great as to be beyond accounting for or even conceiving, they forget a still older innovation—if the word may be permitted—about which there is, assuredly, no room for doubt.  They forget that, after existing for an eternity in solitary blessedness, contemplating Himself and rejoicing in the contemplation, God willed to surround Himself with creatures who should derive their life from Him, and be sustained in it by Him, and should subsist within His all-encompassing Presence, while yet utterly distinct from Him.  Creation, surely, was an astonishing innovation on the Life of God; and creation, as we know, involved possibilities which led to much else beyond.  If God was to be served by moral creatures endowed with reflective reason, and conscience, and free will, that they might offer Him the noblest, because a perfectly voluntary service, this prerogative dignity necessarily carried with it the possibility of failure; and man, in fact, at the very beginning of his history, did fail.  That God should have created at all is, indeed, a mystery; that He should have created a moral world of which He must have foreseen the history, is a still greater mystery; but that, having done this, He-the Eternal Justice, the Eternal Charity—should have left His handiwork to itself, would have been, had it been true or possible, a much greater, and I will add, a much darker mystery.  As God must have created out of love, (Jer. xxxi. 3.) so out of love must He bring a remedy to the ruined creature of His Hands; (St. John iii. 16.) though the form of the remedy only He could prescribe.  We do not know whether there were other ways of raising a fallen race; probably there were, since God is infinite in His resources as in all else.  But we may be sure that the way adopted was the best.  Of other remedies nothing has been told us.  What we do know is the truth of that saying, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;" (1 Tim. i. 15.) what we do confess before God and man is that, “being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made, He for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man." (Nicene Creed.)


And now, perhaps, some one is asking himself what can be the appropriateness of much that has been said on the afternoon of such a day as Christmas Day.  Let us consider.

In the course of his history man has by turns depreciated and exaggerated his true importance among the creatures of God.  Sometimes he has made himself the measure of all things, as though his was the sovereign mind, and the Creator a being whose proceedings could be easily understood by him.  Sometimes man has appeared to revel in self-depreciation, placing himself side by side with or below the beasts that perish, insisting on his animal kinship with them, and anxiously endeavouring to ignore or deny all that points to a higher element in his life.  Sometimes, in a strange spirit of paradox, he has combined theories which ascribe to himself an origin and a nature as degraded as well can be, with passionate assertions of his capacity to judge of all things in earth and Heaven.  Just now the depreciatory account of man is the popular one; and we hear echoes of the language which was used on this subject by the early assailants of Christianity.  Celsus, the eclectic philosopher who compiled his assortment of objections to the Christian Creed about A.D. 170, insisted once and again that man is not really superior to the more intelligent insects, since bees and ants organize themselves into cities and states under recognized rulers; they make war upon and peace with each other, and appear to experience the same vicissitudes of fortune if they do not feel the same jealousies and ambitions as human beings.  (Cf. Origen, Contr. Cels., iv. SS 81, 82; on bees, SS 83-85.) Christianity, according to Celsus and other writers, has made man think too much of his own importance in nature; and some modern successors of Celsus, repeating his estimate of man’s place among creatures, go on to call attention to the insignificance of man’s dwelling-place.  We are reminded that it is no longer possible to think of this earth as the centre of the universe, for the benefit of which the universe exists; as a palace, around which a fair demesne is laid out only with a view to its beauty and requirements; as a comfortable home for the most favoured of God’s creatures, to lighten which the sun rises every morning and the stars shine brightly every night.  Man can no longer look to the heavens above his head as the spangled roof of the tent in which he dwells; nor can he confidently assume that an eclipse or a conjunction of planets has no other object than to assure him of some secret of his petty destiny.  We now know that the planet on which we live is only a smaller satellite of our sun, while this sun itself is but one of thousands of heavenly bodies moving through space in an orbit which it takes vast ages to complete round some still undiscovered centre.  We now know that our eye rests on stars the distance of which from this our earth cannot be expressed in figures; stars whose light, flashing with the speed of light, takes, at the least, even centuries to reach us.  As we gaze into the boundless spheres which astronomy thus opens for us, the insignificance of man’s dwelling-place becomes increasingly apparent; and as we reflect upon it, it seems to involve and make more and more plain the corresponding and utter insignificance of man.

And this impression about the small worth of human life is deepened by what may be observed of the vicissitudes to which men are exposed, not as individuals, but in masses.  A survey of the thousands of dead and dying after a great battle, like Solferino, has for the time being filled men’s minds with a painful suspicion that man is too worthless a being to be cared for, and that his lot is controlled by a pitiless and mechanical fate.  (Note: this feeling was expressed to the author, when visiting the field of Solferino about a fortnight after the battle, by a Piedmontese soldier who accompanied him, and had himself been nearly killed at Desenzano.)  Every ocean steamship that sinks beneath the waves of the Atlantic with its great freight of human lives; every coal-mine that is the scene of an explosion, whereby scores of families round the pit’s mouth are left without their bread-winner; nay, every vast collection of men, such as you may see any day in the streets of London, each one of whom is solitary, unknown, unsympathized with in the great crowd around him—all of these scenes help to deepen the sense of man’s pettiness, and so lead a large number of human beings to think of themselves and of others as leaves blown about by the wind of destiny— whither or why who can say?

Of course, apart from Christian faith, there is another side to the matter which nature itself suggests to us.  When we look steadily at any one man—the feeblest, the most worthless, as we may think him—we become conscious of his having titles to profound and anxious interest.  Be his history what it may; his reason, his conscience, his character, cannot be attentively examined without revealing his transcendent importance.

Whatever men may say in their more sombre moods, they do not really believe in all that some philosophers would tell them about the insignificance of man.  Consider the diligence with which a trial for murder is followed by thousands of readers of the papers.  (This was a remark more than once made to me by the late Dr. J.B. Mozley.  He thought the "relish for justice" inexplicable apart from belief in the immortality of man.)  Here is a man who, before his arrest as a criminal, threaded his way unnoticed through the crowd; one of the leaves, as we are told, which “drifts anywhither before the wind of destiny.” But this man is put on trial for his life, and he immediately becomes an object of general interest— of whatever character.  If he is really only an animal, whose deeds and whose death are alike ordered by fate; if he have no immortal part in him, and no endless destiny before him; why should the question of life and death be debated more anxiously in his case than in that of an ox or a sheep? Why should the court in which his cause is heard be crowded with listeners; the cross-examination of witnesses scanned with such jealous severity; the words that fall from the presiding judge scrutinized with such anxious attention; the reply of the counsel for the prisoner, the summing-up, the verdict of the jury, all waited for with such hushed yet irrepressible eagerness; the report of the trial read and read again by thousands outside the court who have no personal knowledge either of the victim or of the accused; no personal stake whatever, however remote, in the trial?  Do you say that this is to be explained by a widely diffused appetite for all that touches on the confines of the horrible; that a sensation relieves the monotony of thousands of lives; and that those who do not need this relief are not superior to the instincts of vulgar curiosity? If you say this, you cannot have attentively considered the seriousness—I had almost said the passion—with which a trial for murder is followed by persons who would not on any account give time and attention to cases of another kind.  No; men are thus deeply moved because a human life is at stake; because it is a man’s destiny that is being weighed in the balance; because it is instinctively felt that much more is in question than the trifle which the fatalism or materialism of some of our modern teachers would allow.  At these solemn moments the depreciatory theories of man’s nature and origin are forgotten; they give way to a higher and more adequate sense of his real place in the universe.  Even the poor prisoner in the dock, who may be guilty of the crime laid to his charge, and on whose countenance, perchance, vice has traced the history of its long and degrading ascendancy; even he for the moment represents the ineffaceable, the indestructible greatness of man.  He cannot be sentenced to die without stirring in us all a sense of our true place as immortal beings among the creatures of God; he cannot but command our profoundest interest now that he is bidden test the worth and dignity of his being as he is forced violently across the line that divides the living from those whom we name the dead.

There are, of course, other ways in which men show that they recognize the true dignity of their nature, amidst all its feebleness and degradation.  “Men, too, there are,” it has well been said, “who, in a single moment of their lives, have shown a superhuman height and majesty of mind, which it would take ages for them to employ on its proper objects, and, as it were, to exhaust; and who, by such passing flashes like rays of the sun, or the darting of lightning,” (Newman, Par. Serm. iv. 246.) give to all around them a sure token of the immense capacities of a human being.  But it must be owned that man’s judgment about himself, when he is left to himself, rises and sinks with the varying circumstances of his life, with the varying moods of his mind.  Left to himself, man has no very solid ground of confidence in any estimate he may form; and he oscillates with timid indecision between grotesque exaggerations and unworthy denials of his real place among the creatures of God.  If man was to discover at once the greatness of his needs and the greatness of his capacities, it must be by reference to some standard independent of himself; by the teaching of some event breaking in upon and elevating his collective life, as did the Divine Incarnation.  By uniting man’s nature for ever to that of the Being Who made him, the Incarnation restored to man his self-respect, while it also made him feel his moral poverty without God, and his utter dependence upon God.  But that human nature in which the Eternal Word condescended and condescends to dwell can never be treated by a Christian believer as other than a nature capable of the highest destinies.

Let us contemplate for a moment the Life of our Lord upon earth from this point of view, as the Life Which puts such high and exceptional honour upon human nature.

The moral beauty of which mankind is capable appeared in the earthly Life of Jesus as it never appeared before, as it has never appeared since.  Had men invented such a moral portrait, the invention would have been scarcely less a matter for wonder than the reality.  But no literary creation could have made so deep and enduring a mark on generations of human beings as has been made by the Life of Jesus.  Yet we can only surrender ourselves to its power upon one condition; we must frankly admit that it is the Life of the Word made flesh no less truly than the Life of the Son of Man.  A mere man might have been inspired to say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” (St. Matt. v. 3-10.) But no mere man, being humble and veracious, could have said of himself, “I am the Life “ (St. John xi. 25; xiv. 6.) am the Light of the world; “ (St. John viii. 12.) and the Father are one thing; “ (St. John x. 30.) “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; " (St. John xiv. 9.) “No man knoweth the Son but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father save the Jesus says too much about Himself if He is to be measured by a standard of merely human excellence; if He is only man, we cannot say that all His language is either modest or truthful.  All, indeed, falls into its place if He is also the Eternal Son of God; in accepting this central and vital truth we recognize the supreme significance of His Life as that of” God manifest in the flesh.” (1 Tim. iii. 16.) Embrace this truth, and it is not hard to understand now His death on Calvary might avail even for much more than the world’s redemption, or how at His Word the weak and poor elements of water and bread and wine might become instruments of spiritual blessings, or veils of a Higher Presence, contact with Which would mean a new life and power for the bodies and souls of men.

Nor does it matter whether such a Life as that of Jesus, radiant with the beauty and charged with the force of God, was lived on a large sun or on a small planet.  The moral world has no relation to the material; the Perfect Moral Being is not impressed, as some of our physicists would seem to be impressed, by mere material bulk.  If it is true of God that “He bath no pleasure in the strength of an horse, neither delighteth He in any man’s legs,” (Ps. cxlvii. 10.) so it is true that “since the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him,” the vastest stars and suns have no particular claim, on account of their size, on His regard.  When He would unite Himself to a Human Form in and through Which to achieve the elevation and re-demption of the human family, He chose the scene whence the Divine work would be best achieved; He chose the little planet on which we live; He chose as His birthplace not Rome, not even Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, though it was “little among the thousands of Judah; “ (Micah v. 2.) He was laid in a rude manger outside the crowded village: He did “not abhor the Virgin’s womb." (The Te Deum.)


And therefore Christmas Day is the birthday of the best hopes of man; it is the second birthday of the human family.  No other day in the year reminds us more persuasively of the greatness of man; of the greatness, actual or possible, of every human being.  Nothing that can be said about man’s capacities, or progress, or prerogatives, or rights, approaches even distantly to that which is involved in God’s having so loved the human world that He gave His only begotten Son (St. John iii. 16.) to take our nature upon Him.  Already, while He was upon earth, we see the meaning of His appearance in the irradiated lives of those around Him.  Why is it that poor fishermen, like Peter and Andrew, and peasants like Simon and Jude and James, and tax collectors like Matthew, are far more to us than the great soldiers and statesmen who ruled the Roman world; why is the uncultivated penitent of Magdala infinitely more interesting than the stately ladies who moved amid crowds of prostrate slaves through the halls of the Caesars?  It is because the wonder-working touch of the Word made flesh had already begun to create in these poor country-folk the first samples of a new humanity in which human nature should recover its lost dignity and its lost self-respect; it is because each of them would repeat, from his place in Paradise, the words which one has already written down in the pages of the everlasting Gospel: “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (St. John i. 14.)

Surely Christmas, as the birthday of human greatness, should kindle in us the sense of our true Christian dignity, and nerve us to claim and to protect it by all that guards and invigorates true Christian life.  May “the Father of Glory gives us this spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of our understanding being enlightened, we may know what is the hope of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power to usward who believe.” (Eph. i. 17-19.)

And as Christmas Day is the birthday of true human dignity, so it is the birthday of true human brotherhood.  Kneeling around the cradle of the Incarnate Word, we may understand that great sentence of His Apostle, that for the new man, renewed after the image of Him that created him, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is all and in all.” (Col. iii. 11.) At the manger of Bethlehem, we may dare to look forward, in some coming time, to that union of human lives, of human hearts, of which the noblest of our race again and again have dreamt; to a brotherhood which has sometimes been recommended by abstract arguments, sometimes dictated by revolutionary terrorism, but which to be genuine must be the perfectly free movement of hearts drawn towards each other by a supreme attraction.  That attraction we find in the Divine Child of Bethlehem, born that He might redeem and regenerate the world.  And all the courtesies and kindnesses of this happy season between members of families, and members of households, and members of the same parish; between the rich and the poor, and the old and the young, and the so-called great and the so-called insignificant, are rightly done in His honour, Who by coming to reveal to us what we may be in Him and through Him, came also to bind us to each other by uniting us to Himself.  If still as heretofore the ideal is only too far from being realized; if we hear of sombre jealousies between classes, and of rumours of wars between powerful countries, and of much else at home and abroad that is in opposition to the work which He came to do; let us look to it that, however humble be our place in the scale of moral and spiritual agents, while we linger on this passing scene, we be found among those who have heard to some purpose the angel-song in the meadows of Bethlehem—” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom God is well pleased.” (St. Luke ii. 14. (Tisch., App. crit. ed., 8vo).)