The Seventh Day of Christmas, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jo. 1:12).

As we know from the song, the Christmas season has twelve days, taking us from December 25 to January 5: a season which encompasses not only the celebration of the birth of the Savior, but also the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. The familiar song suggests that the twelve days are an extended season of celebration, of gifts given and received (“my true love gave to me”). In these twelve days, we move from Advent to Epiphany; we also turn the page of our calendars from December to January, and greet a new year.

In Christmas we welcome the birth of Jesus Christ, and that birth suggests a theme for us. The theme already surfaces in our Gospel today, once again drawn from the first chapter of John. In this prologue, St. John conjures with the coming of Jesus Christ into the world; not giving us the familiar stories that we associate with Christmas, but writing instead about the Word that becomes flesh, about the light that shines in the darkness. Instead of telling the story of the child’s birth in Bethlehem, John tells us how his coming into the world makes us children of God. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jo. 1:12).

The idea of new birth implicit in becoming a child of God is a characteristic one for St. John, one that is highlighted in his Gospel and in the letters attributed to him. When Jesus encounters Nicodemus, in the third chapter of the Gospel, he tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is “born from above” or “born again” (Jo. 3:3). In other words, a new birth is called for, one that will make people into children of God. As the First Letter of John puts it, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 Jo. 5:1). The theme is not just peculiar to John, either; as St. Paul puts it in the Letter to Titus, God has saved us “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). Again, the focus is on us, on our rebirth as children of God.

It’s a significant theme for Christians. Birth is the great, common experience that we all share as human beings; the great, common experience that none of us remembers! What we end up remembering instead of our own birth is the birth of someone else: a child, a grandchild, the child of a friend. Whatever the case, we know what birth means: connection, opportunity, the next generation: in short, new life. Birth is a mighty symbol of the new life we are given in Christ.

St. Leo of Rome put it this way, in a Christmas sermon, “In the very act in which we are reverencing the birth of our Savior, we are also celebrating our own new birth” (Nat., Ser. 6). Through the collects and prayers of our liturgy this theme of new birth shines through. Through the gift of God, we are given a new connection in the church of which Christ is the head and we are the members; opportunity for forgiveness through him, and the chance to chart a new course; a new generation in him in the promise of eternal life: in short, we’re given a whole new life. New possibilities of transformation and renewal are now on offer, in our rebirth through the Spirit.

I think it’s here that we find the origin of the custom of a New Year’s resolution. We hunger for a new start, don’t we; we long to reclaim the potential of the past; we look to regain the opportunity that once was in prospect. To put it positively, we believe that there is new life ahead. That belief, of course, is true: essential to being a Christian, and to our humanity itself.

The good news of Christmas is that new life is available, through the generous margin that God gives us. New birth comes through grace, God’s power and presence in our lives. The power of a new resolution does not lie within ourselves but within God. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are reborn and renewed. It’s God’s gift to us as we celebrate the birth of the Savior.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee