Isn’t this the most entrancing of all the feasts we keep?
It’s as if there’s a procession to the crib already. It’s as if the carols, the announcement of the Nativity, the Gloria, the prayers, Isaiah, the Psalm, St Paul, St Luke come up one after another to worship the Child. And don’t we sense it all goes far beyond ourselves? We know there are people all over the world, tonight and tomorrow, strung out across the time-zones, making their way to church and / or keeping this night in their hearts. In so many different places, so many different circumstances.
How striking that the Gospel tonight actually mentions Syria! The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, has said in his Christmas message, ‘Syria this Christmas best resembles a crib: an open stable, with no door, cold, deprived and so poor. The Child Jesus doesn’t lack companions in Syria. Thousands of children who have lost their homes are living in tents as poor as the crib of Bethlehem…In her difficulties, Mary is not alone anymore; unhappy mothers, less lucky than her, are living in extreme poverty and taking on family responsibilities alone without their husbands.’
Yes, this night embraces that as well. So much of life, painful and beautiful, is here – touched on so lightly perhaps in the readings, but enough to suggest them, evoke them. Here’s political power, emperor and governor, here are people on the move, a struggling family, the noise and crush of a pub, temporary shelter, men doing night-shifts, animals and angels, ancient hopes and current distress, things natural and supernatural – all jumbled together. But in the middle of it all, something happens. A baby’s born. Such a simple thing. I heard the other day these lines in a sermon, ‘The great events aren’t battles or elections. The great events are babies.’ Every baby, any baby. But this one even more so. There’s a qualitative leap, a jump. Nova nativitas, a new birth. A virgin birth. A man-child who’s God. A new beginning. At night, in a cave that sheltered cattle, in a trough that fed them, wrapped in swaddling clothes, tiny and asleep. God comes into the world and falls asleep. He’s asleep at the heart of the world. And everything, hardly knowing it, is changed.
When a couple have a child, their first child, their life is completely changed. It’s completely re-arranged. It’s re-arranged around the child. He or she is their king or queen. Life’s all still there, but nothing is where it was. And tonight, thanks to this little boy conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, it’s the same but more so. Tonight, ‘the whole world’, to use St Luke’s phrase, ‘the whole human race’, to use St Paul’s – everything – is rearranged around this Child. Everything is changed. Even, though it didn’t suspect it, the great Roman Empire. Even, though only a few like Mary and Joseph knew it, the ‘whole people’ of Israel. Even, though they did know it, the vast and to us largely unknown world of the angels. This Child, this single drop of divine humanity in the salt-sea of life, changes everything. To be a Christian is to allow this Child to rearrange our life. Everything, from now on, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or not, is defined by its relation to him. Everything is relative, as Einstein might say, but relative to him. Life’s no longer just about me or my issues or my agenda or my family or my work or my country or whatever. It’s no longer just politics or economics. These things are all still there. But every one of them and I and all of us are gently, subtly, surreptitiously shifted. Relocated. Repositioned. Suddenly the world has a centre. A point of reference. A child asleep in a manger, ‘Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace’ (Is 9:6). And in the silence of the night, everything that tries to claim our absolute allegiance – the yoke that is weighing on us, the bar across our shoulders, the rods of our oppressors – all of them crack and break. The little Child dethrones them all. Even our own egos have to stand down and give way. Here he is, the sleeping king, born at the edge of a village, on the troubled fringe of an Empire, child of a displaced mother, marginal, peripheral, come to enthrone himself in us, come to be our centre and our freedom and our peace. He sleeps and we wake, and we’re in a different place.
‘Let not our stubborn hearts / despise the peace he deigns to bring.’
To be a Christian is to allow this child to rearrange our life. To redefine us. Just as if he were our own. To be our centre.
St Paul says what this entails: ‘to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions…be self-restrained..live good and religious lives here in the present world, as we await our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Tit 2:12-13).