King Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, had two men in his employ charged with a peculiar and specific task. Each morning they were expected to say to the king, “Philip, remember you are but a man.” Each evening the same two men were to ask the king, “Philip, have you remembered that you are but a man?”
You are but a man . . . You are only human . . .
Both of these are statements of humility and both are pertinent for our feast this holy night. Our Gospel reading tells us of the birth of our Savior. But upon closer study, it tells us of so much more. Within the lines of our Gospel reading we can discern the power of humility and the humility of power. We can see what mysteries arise when God and humans work side by side and, indeed, are united.
There is a small cast of characters in our reading. It would do us well to review them:
Joseph: a humble man of lowly origins who chose to ignore and forebear public derision to honor his bride who was found to be pregnant before he had known her.
Mary: a humble young woman, probably no more than fifteen years old, who said yes to God’s outrageous request that she bear the Savior of the world.
The shepherds: humble men, oftentimes mistrusted and treated as outcasts due to their profession, met in the fields by an angel and the hosts of heaven to hear the very first announcement of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Joseph, Mary and the shepherds each were but a man and but a woman. They were all only human. But they played a part in the great drama of our faith. They played a part because of their humility. They were a part of this adventure precisely because they were but and only human. They found their power in their humility.
Our Lord found his humility in his power. For what is it for God Almighty, impassible and immune to our suffering, to sit sovereign over us? What sort of justice, compassion, love and tenderness can be found in a god that is aloof and knows only what can be observed, rather than what has been lived and personally experienced?
This night we celebrate the birth of God among us. We mark and ponder the mystery of God Almighty becoming but a man, only human. We wander deep into the paradox of power and humility rising from the same heart of love. Jesus Christ, Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, of one being with the Father, this night can claim, with us, that he is but a man, he is only human.
Yet the mystery of the Incarnation, of God made flesh, of God with us, truly with us, is that Jesus is Lord at his birth. We feast not simply and solely because he is but a man, only human, we also feast that he is God as well; fully God, fully human, fully with us and we with him, forever.
Tonight is a feast of mysteries and paradoxes. Heaven and earth are united, power and humility are intertwined, the divine and the human are now one. How do we explain these great mysteries? We don’t.
A true mystery is one that cannot be explained. Instead, we rest humbly within it and find our place and purpose in its midst; like Joseph, like Mary, like the shepherds.
We are but men and women. We are only human. But tonight we marvel that so was God.