Christmas Night Mass

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‘There is a child born for us, a son given to us.’

Brothers and Sisters, after so much anticipation, Mary is delivered, the baby is born and Christmas is here. Somebody wished me for Christmas ‘stamina and wonder’. Well, this is the moment for the wonder. It’s the moment for quiet and adoration and, like Mary, for pondering in the heart. There’s an old, unscientific tradition that at midnight, for a moment, the world stops turning, everything pauses. And there’s a verse in the Book of Wisdom that says: ‘While gentle silence enveloped all things and night in its swift course was half-gone, your all- powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne’ (Wisd 18:14-15). So, silence envelops the world, Mary wraps the child in swaddling-clothes, and something starts to enfold us too. ‘God’s grace has been revealed’, says St Paul. Is it that?

‘There is a child born for us, a son given to us.’ This is the moment, when with gentle fingers, we can unwrap the ‘present’ God the Father has for us. It doesn’t lie under a Christmas tree. It comes instead at the end of Mary’s nine months, at the end of all those generations from Abraham and David, after all the prophecies of the prophets, and a long process of purification and hollowing out. Suddenly, expected and unexpected, it is there. He is there. He is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. ‘There is a child born for us, a son given to us.’

Early in Genesis comes the strange story of the woman being formed from the rib of the man, while he slept. What does it mean? Ribs enclose and protect the heart and the lungs. Ribs, it has been said, are the closest thing to the heart. So the man is to hold the woman as the being nearest and dearest to his heart and the woman is to protect the breath (the life) and the heart of the man.

And tonight Mary presses her child against her own heart. It is the primal Christian picture. When an icon shows the cheek of Jesus touching his mother’s, it’s called the Icon of Tenderness. How can we live without tenderness, without some form of closeness and intimacy? Life is too cold otherwise, the wind too strong, and the dark too threatening; and we shut down. We harden. And God knows the heart of his creation. How then does he present himself to us? As a child needing to be held and cuddled and protected, a child enclosed by the warmth of Mary and the quiet strength of Joseph. ‘There is a child born for us.’ A child…

‘…And a son given to us.’ The son of Mary and – here’s the wonder – the eternal Son of the eternal Father. This is God’s present. The Gospel of John says this: ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (Jn 1:18). That’s beautiful wording. There’s the heart and the rib, Adam and Eve, man and woman; there’s the mother and the child, Mary and Jesus; there’s the Father and the Son. We can go on: to John the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper. The present the Father unwraps tonight is the Being nearest to his heart, his most intimate treasure, his darling, his consubstantial Son – the Son he entrusts to the hands of Mary, the Son placed in our hands at Holy Communion. Tonight we touch and tonight we see the heart of what we believe. It’s this opportunity of tenderness. It’s an invitation to intimacy. It’s a promise of security, stronger than anything life throws at us. It’s shelter and sanctuary. It’s rest. It’s the certainty of being loved, even to the least hair of our head. It’s a human face which is God’s – perhaps just sleeping. This couldn’t have come from human devising. It’s what the great Greek philosopher Aristotle explicitly said was impossible: friendship between humans and God. It could only come from above, while gentle silence enveloped everything; a perfect gift, filling the cavity of our hearts and souls; the “wisdom from above”, described by St James, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (James 3:17) – a portrait of Christ.

This delicate thing, enclosed in this child – once we’ve touched or tasted it, held or been held by it, ever so fleetingly – is stronger than everything else. It’s stronger than all objections to faith, all contempt for the Church, all the scorn and laughter of the world, all our inner mess, all our sins. No Caesar Augustus or Quirinius, ancient or modern, can take it away. It enfolds us. It can carry us through everything. It ‘has made salvation possible’. It’s the mystery of a child, a son, who brings a new intimacy.

Words won’t do to evoke it. St Bonaventure said this: ‘If you want to understand how this happens, ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of understanding; ask it of earnest prayer, not attentive study; ask it of the betrothed, not of the teacher; ask it of God, not of man’. Let’s ask it, tonight, of the Child and his mother. Ask it of the Father and the Son. Let’s go to Bethlehem, go to the manger. ‘There is a child born for us, a son given to us.’

St Mary’s Cathedral, 24 / 25 December, 2018