The scene opens with Jack, a high powered wealthy business man, preparing to buy out another company, on Christmas Eve. He insists that all of his employees stay and work late, and then come in and work again on Christmas Day. Family time for the holiday does not matter. Jack is fully in control, and gives the impression of a man who thinks his life is perfect.
The next scene: a few hours later Jack is in a convenience store when he encounters what looks like a potential armed robbery. He intervenes by offering the thief $200 dollars to leave the store, and after some haggling the two of them walk out together. As they wander down the street Jack continues to offer help to the thief, ideas and suggestions for changing his life. The thief is amused that Jack is trying to help him. At one point the thief says, “Wow, ok, you want to save ME, that’s incredible. Alright then, just remember, you brought this on yourself.” That’s when we, the audience watching this movie, get our first clue that this thief is not who he appears.
The next morning, Christmas morning, Jack, wakes up in a room, in a bed, he does not know, with a woman he knew 13 years earlier, a woman who is now, apparently, his wife. And instead of a high rise apartment in New York he is in a house in New Jersey, a married man with two kids and a dog, and a beat up minivan instead of a Ferrari. Understandably Jack is stunned, confused, speechless. And despite the fact that it is Christmas morning and family is arriving to open gifts, Jack bolts out of the house and drives into Manhattan, in a futile effort to find his life again. After a series of events that tell Jack that the life he knew is gone, or never happened, he then encounters the thief again, this time driving Jack’s Ferrari. It turns out the man, played by the actor Don Cheadle, is not a thief, but an angel. And Jack, played by Nicholas Cage, is about to learn that his perfect life was not so perfect.
Over the next scenes Jack begins to realize what is really missing from the life he led as a powerful business man. At first it is a struggle, he misses the fine restaurants and clothes, the luxury of his “former” life. But he also comes to realize the deep emptiness within him, from a life without love. Eventually the movie returns Jack to his old life, back to Christmas Day and the corporate buy out he was completing. Only now he has a vision of what his life could be like. He no longer wants to live for wealth alone, he wants to live for love. His vision of life has been transformed, and now he yearns for nothing more than to find that love and live the life of his vision.
This time of year is filled with movies like this one, The Family Man, or It’s a Wonderful Life; movies and stories about the transformational power of love. Each story contains a pivotal moment when we see the main character transformed.
On this night we celebrate the pivotal moment in our salvation history, the Incarnation. The birth of God into human flesh is for us the most important act of love that God offers humanity. The incarnation is the pivotal moment in the Christian story of salvation – God’s love in human form – defines for us who we are and what we are to do.
It is the birth of God in human form that shows us a vision of the life God desires for us. It is the birth that leads to the death that culminates in the ultimate sign of love, the new life, the resurrection. The birth is the event that brings God’s love to us in tangible human relationship.
In the Gospel of Matthew there is a crucial argument that takes place between Jesus and Pharisees. Well, most of Matthew is an argument between the Pharisees and Jesus – but this one question changes everything. The Pharisees ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest. Now, it is helpful if we remember that in scripture there are not just the 10 well known commandments, but 613 commandments that God gives to Israel. 613 rules for living in right relationship with God. The Pharisees ask this question of Jesus, but it is a trick question, because what ever one commandment Jesus chooses they will argue for another – well, what about this one, or that one?
Jesus, showing his brilliant understanding of God and what God is doing in the world, offers the one answer the Pharisees cannot argue against. He says, “The greatest commandment is this, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this hang all the law and the prophets.”
Love God, love self, love neighbor. From the incarnation and the life that Jesus lives, we have a vision of the depth of God’s love for creation, for us. Not just a vision, but a real experience of love, of being loved and of offering love in return. Tonight we celebrate a simple humble love born in a human baby to a human family -not to grandeur, power, and wealth, but under the most modest of circumstances.
Simple, and yet, it’s the only love that can comfort us in our deepest sorrow. It’s a compassionate love that fills us with peace even during our darkest moment. It’s a merciful love that sees into every kind of difference between us and shows us what we have in common. It’s a grace-filled love that laughs with us and celebrates our joys. It’s the love of a friend, a parent, a companion, a colleague, a stranger. It’s the kind of love that transforms every face into the face of Christ, every hand into the hand of Christ, every heart into his heart – mine, yours, theirs, ours. It’s the kind of love that mends brokenness, heals wounds, restores wholeness, even when the possibility of such a love is just a glimmer of light, a star in the dark night sky.
That’s the vision that God offers us in the incarnation. The potential of what could be if we let the vision take hold of us and guide our lives. That’s the vision that comes to us anew this night. That’s the hope God offers us for our lives and our world, simple, humble, yet all encompassing love.