By Father Nathan Humphrey
Christmas Eve, Year C
24 December 2018
I’ve been listening to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis in the car, which I’d never read (or heard read) before. Mere Christianity started out as radio talks Lewis gave during World War Two and that he later revised and published under that title in the 1950s. It’s a bit dated, but delightfully English.
What surprised me about Mere Christianity is that a central claim of the book is, I believe, a central claim of almost every brand or variety of “organized religion” or “spirituality” to which I’ve ever been exposed, but in Christianity this claim is focused and expressed in the life of a particular person, Jesus, the one who was born in a manger and died on a cross.
That central claim is this: There are two kinds of life that human beings experience, and Lewis borrows the Greek words Bios and Zoe to distinguish between the two. Bios is, as the word suggests, the biological world—what we all think of as the “natural” world, the “real,” material world. But there is also inside the animal Homo sapiens this strange notion of Zoe, a yearning for and even a perceived glimpsing of what we all think of as the “spiritual” world, what we mean when we talk about humans as having “souls”—even if you don’t believe those souls are eternal, as Christian doctrine teaches. When Jesus taught about life, and particularly eternal life, he always used the word Zoe. Lewis, following Jesus’ meaning, uses Zoe in its broadest sense to denote “true life,” not merely in a material sense, but in the sense of living the best life possible, having abundant life.
I cannot think of any spirituality or religion that does not have some notion that there is such a thing as what Lewis calls Zoe, and that, in fact, Zoe is the goal of all our noblest human efforts, perhaps even impossible to attain without the help of others or the Source of that abundant life itself.
Whether you go to church regularly or describe yourself as “spiritual but not religious” (that’s how I like to describe myself, by the way)—even if you think of yourself as thoroughly secular or atheistic or agnostic—the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world would agree that there’s something spiritual about ourselves and our world, and that this Zoe, this abundant life, is something we and the world could use a lot more of because deep down inside, it’s what we are truly hungry for.
Thus, those of us who can relate to this definition of “spiritual,” whether we regard ourselves as “religious” or not, believe that were we to find abundant Zoe, we would be better human beings and the world would be a more peaceful place. We would love each other more authentically and care for the material world—what Lewis calls Bios—with a greater sense of personal responsibility. We would not be complacent about our environment, or the poverty of others, whether materially or spiritually. In a word, we would be more connected to each other and to whatever the Source of that abundant Life is. We all agree that if we could plug into the Source of abundant life, our own lives would be more likely to flourish, as well, or at the very least our burdens would become more bearable. Perhaps, were we more in touch with that Source of abundant life, we might even lose our fear of suffering and death.
What I’m saying, in short, is this: I contend that abundant life exists, and that it is possible, through specific spiritual practices and what Christians call grace, to dwell in that abundant life and to be moved to share it with others.
Of the 7.5 billion people currently populating this planet, about a third self-identify as some sort of Christian, among whom nearly everyone in this room is accounted. I’m fascinated by the question of why a third of the planet should self-identify as Christians. It makes me wonder, “What has been the staying power of Christianity?” I think the answer is less cultural and more related to what Christianity actually teaches. If people didn’t find something in Christianity that spoke to their deep hunger for abundant life, after all, it would quickly die out.
But consider this very place you sit this evening. Six years ago we were at death’s door. The Bishop came to celebrate Midnight Mass and there were fifty-six people in the room, counting the clergy and choir, and that was pretty good. Last year, we had over two hundred people walk through our doors across two services. A couple of years ago, I did a father-daughter baptism. He has an MBA from Harvard and is now our parish treasurer. As he likes to say whenever he sees something good happen around here: “Sales are up!”
So, what is the “selling point” of Christianity? Is it just the music and the choreography? Or perhaps our admirable service to the community and the world, our concern for social justice?
No, the selling point is the baby in the manger.
Why this baby? Christians believe that in the person of Jesus Christ we can see what a real human being looks like. Not just an “ideal” human being, but a perfect human being: a human being that embodies the fullness of Zoe and not just extraordinary Bios. And far from simply imitating him, we are called to become one with him, through the Word and Sacraments, through prayer and service and love.
Jesus is how we plug into the source of abundant life. Jesus is what makes it possible for our lives to flourish, and when we suffer, Jesus’ suffering, death, and triumph over death has the potential to make our burdens more bearable. Though to be honest, that’s the really hard part of becoming one with him, because becoming one with him does not remove us from suffering and death, it only holds out the promise, if we can hold onto it by grace and spiritual discipline, to lose our fear of suffering and death.
Abundant life exists, and you may be able to plug into it in other ways. But it’s my joy and responsibility to stand before you this evening and affirm that it is possible, through commitment to the spiritual practices of Christianity, to receive that gift not of our own making that first came to us in a stable in Bethlehem, whereby we receive the grace to dwell in that abundant life and share it with others. That Source of abundant life is here, now, within your grasp. That spiritual life you long for can be found here if like the shepherds and magi you diligently seek the one who is the Source and End of all spiritual longings.
O come, let us adore him.