This Mass – in its timing, its prayers, its readings – has a different feel from the Midnight Mass or from the Mass early on Christmas morning, the Dawn Mass. It’s more reflective. Everything is calmer, less excited, more thoughtful. It’s as if the angels have put away their trumpets and are just gazing thoughtfully at the child. The shepherds have returned their flutes to their backpacks, and are sitting quietly, looking. And Mary is pondering.
It’s true, the first reading, from Isaiah, has a frisson to it. A messenger is running to Jerusalem. The watchmen on the city walls glimpse the dust cloud. And behind the messenger they see the Lord himself on his way. And they cry out, ‘Break into shouts of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord is consoling his people, redeeming Jerusalem.’ And the Psalm takes up the cry with harps, trumpets and horns.
But in Bethlehem, round the manger, it’s quiet now. The Child is sleeping. A sense of wonder has descended and there’s the rising realisation that with this tiny Baby something huge has happened.
The Liturgy tries to articulate it.
Listen to the stately, classical Collect: ‘O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant we pray that we may share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ This is large and solemn. Divinity has humbled itself and humanity is exalted. God has become man so that man may become God.
Listen to the 2nd reading, the opening of the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son.’ History has reached a climax. God, who has been dropping hints about himself, leaving clues around the house, sending prophecies like emails or like notes through the letterbox, has suddenly come through the back door and is sitting calmly at the kitchen table, in the person of his Son. And who is he? He’s ‘the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command.’ The Origin of creation has entered the world he created. This is broad, thoughtful, solemn stuff.
‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God’, says the Psalm verse. ‘Come you nations, worship the Lord,’ said the Alleluia verse, ‘for today a great light has shone down upon the earth’. Bethlehem is more than ‘royal David’s city’; it’s the centre of the world.
And the Gospel crowns it all: ‘In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him…The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace.’
So, this sleeping child is the still centre of everything. He’s the Word made flesh. Everything converges on him and everything goes out from him. The vertical line joining God and man runs through him. The horizontal lines of time and space pass in to and out from him. He is the point of intersection ‘and in him all things hold together.’ It is this big.
Such is the mood, the message, the majesty of this Mass.
And yet, think: ‘He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him.’ Outside the animals’ cave, Bethlehem was busy about another day. The Roman officials were getting on with the census. The landlord of the inn was cleaning up after the night before. And we are the same, full of distractions and things to do. We come to Mass and we go, and likewise all this God-stuff comes and goes.
And so a question arises. How can this great thing, this other music, go with us? Because in the stable, round the manger, the wonderful exchange of God and man was taking place, a strange new world was being born. Is it open to us as well? The angels were worshipping. Joseph was giving his practical concern for the mother and child. The magi were drawing near with their gifts. Mary was absorbing everything. In the minds and hearts of them all the child was finding a home. Can it happen to us, and how? ‘But to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in his name.’ This is the Year of Faith, and faith is the door. It’s like the low narrow door into the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. What is faith? It’s to say from the heart ‘I believe’. It’s to profess the Creed, as we will in a moment. It’s to believe the message of the prophets and apostles, to assent to the great truths the Church proclaims as truths that come from God. And so, let me quote the Holy Father, ‘It’s to let ourselves be grasped by the Truth that is God, the Truth that is Love. It is welcoming into our lives God’s view of reality. It’s letting God guide us with his words and sacraments into what we should do, what journey we should make, how we should live.’ It’s putting on the mind of Christ. It’s letting him show us the world, other people, life, and lead us to God the Father and everlasting life. Faith is offering him the ruined Jerusalem, the tumbledown stable, the tattered tent of our hearts. It’s him making us his home.
Today, at the words in the Creed, ‘and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man’, we kneel. And then we rise. Faith is like that. We kneel. We submit. We put our own sham greatness and wisdom aside. And then we rise – to the stature and vision of this Little One. ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Faith is the door that lets him in. Faith lets this be true every day until we pass with him into the Father’s heart.