Every Sunday Mass, every feast day, has its own set of prayers and readings. Christmas, being a great feast, the second after Easter, has four. It has a Vigil Mass, a Night Mass, a Dawn Mass and this Mass, the Day Mass. The Vigil Mass one might compare to a star, the Night Mass to the moon and the Dawn Mass to the dawn. At this Mass, it’s as if the sun has fully risen and fills the sky. Recently, there has been a solitary violinist playing in Union St. He could have been a guest in the stable. This Day Mass, though, is like passing from a solo or trio or quartet to a full choir and orchestra. It’s less the magic of the child in the manger and the eagerness of the shepherds that prevail. It’s more the sense of the huge reality this child conceals.
‘The Lord bares his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’, says Isaiah This child is not just a local boy. He’s the Saviour of the world.
‘Sing Psalms to the Lord with the harp, with the sound of music, with trumpets and the sound of the horn’, says the Psalmist. Enter the orchestra.
Then comes 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, the Son that he has appointed heir of everything, and through whom he made everything that is.’ How this child is growing in stature as we listen! ‘He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command.’ He’s the centre of the universe, the centre of history, he’s the image of God.
Then our choir sang: ‘Come, you nations, worship the Lord – join the choir – for today a great light has shone down on the earth. Alleluia.’
Then the procession, a pause, and the deacon with the sonorous voice proclaims the most majestic page of the whole New Testament, the Prologue to the Gospel of John. ‘In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ The world was made through him, humanity was made through him. He was already, as God, hidden in the world, giving the universe its form and coherence and humanity its understanding – unacknowledged. Then the climax: ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ This child is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, the Word, the perfect Image of the Father. The Timeless One has entered time. He has taken on our human nature: added it, as it were, to his divinity. Better, he has married it.
‘We saw his glory.’ This is what we want to see! This is the grace of Christmas: to see the divine glory in this child, a simple, vulnerable, fragile child in need of care and love – just as at Easter we are called to see it in the ridiculed man on the Cross. It’s same Glory we are called to see in the consecrated Host and, beyond all the human limitations, reflected on the face of the Church, Christ’s Body and Bride.
How can it be? John Betjeman asked: ‘And is it true? And is it true? / That God was man in Palestine? / and lives today in bread and wine?’ Well, let’s leave the metaphysics of it for now and bother with arguments another time.’ All reason can really say is that it isn’t impossible. Let’s now just try to believe and adore. Let’s now just acclaim with a less questioning poet:
‘Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth’ (Richard Crashaw)
‘We saw his glory.’ Let’s ask Mary and Joseph to see it, ask the angels, ask the apostles. ‘To all who did accept him, he gave power to become the children of God.’ We are not the children of God by nature, but we are by adoption. We are sons in the Son. The Son of God became the son of man so that the sons and daughters of man may become the sons and daughters of God. The Collect says the same in other words. The sun is high in the sky.
If we deny the divinity of Christ, the light goes out of our humanity
The glory of Christmas runs through to us. It is all for us. ‘The Lord bares his holy arm in the sight of all nations.’ If God has become man, we have been affirmed in a way that goes beyond our own devising. We have been endorsed. We have been recognized. We have been told we are wanted, that we count. Every one of us. We’re all contained in that child. Our freedom is the chance of accepting that: of endorsing God’s endorsement by trying to live like Christ. We don’t have to puff ourselves up. We don’t have to make a god of our self. We don’t have to do better than others or suck them into the vortex of our frantic search for self-esteem. We can be what we are: this strange mixture of weakness and strength, selfhood and dependence. Our dignity is there, safe in the hands of the child. Absolutely sure. Our humanity, our individuality are safe now. Our life is safe, whatever comes. If we give it over, it is filled. The Magi offered gifts – good for them. But the shepherds just brought themselves and went away glorifying God. They had seen the glory.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 December 2018