Homily for Christmas Day Mass

‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’

There are so many Christmasses, aren’t there? It’s tempting to catalogue them. There’s the retail Christmas. There’s the paganised Christmas of ‘winter festivals’ and ‘season’s greetings’. There’s the Christmas of politicians with messages of good will and peace on earth. There’s the culinary Christmas, of good food and drink. ‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,’ says Good King Wenceslas. Why not? ‘The Word was made flesh. There’s the family Christmas. The historians say that the Victorians invented this. The cynics say that the number of files for divorce rise after it. But surely, it’s a holy and wholesome thing. There’s the Christmas of charity, of helping the unfortunate. King Wenceslas’ ‘flesh and wine’ were for a poor man, not just himself. We all know: there are cold and lonely Christmasses, Christmasses in war zones, Christmasses ill in bed.

And isn’t there also the Christmas of faith? That’s what’s brought us here. It’s what in this liturgy. It can help us sift and sort out the many Christmasses on the market, as it were. It leaves some aside, and others it quietly enriches from inside. This Christmas of faith is surely head of the list.

What is it? It is the familiar story, surely, told by two of the four Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke: the mysteriously pregnant Virgin, the journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the birth in the stable, the angels and the shepherds, the wise men and the stars. It’s this story which even an atheist like Matthew Parris says he loves. It’s a story which is part of our Christian identity, at the heart of Christian culture. It’s the birth of Christ the Lord. It’s the child in the manger. And it’s a story that can be told over and over again. It’s a versatile story. One recent Primary School Nativity featured aliens who dutifully ended up worshipping the child in the crib. It can be seen from many angles. It can be read, for example, quite politically. Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Herod: these were political figures of the day. And here’s a young couple who have to relocate under government orders (the government after more tax, of course) and find themselves homeless; here’s a young woman who has to give birth bereft of basic social support and medical care, in a most unhygienic setting; here’s a family who have to seek asylum in another country as the result of a paranoid tyrant’s brutality. This story can always be topical.

But let’s go deeper into the Christmas of faith. I’ve mentioned the Christmas of Matthew and Luke. At this Mass, though, we hear the Evangelist John. The Deacon has just read the first 18 verses of chapter 1, the Prologue of the Gospel. There’s no Bethlehem or shepherds or wise men. No kings or emperors. Not even a mother and baby. But it is a Christmas Gospel. It’s even the crowning one, the most far-reaching one. And this is what it says: Christmas is God letting us into his secret. ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’

This is the Christmas of John. He goes right back. He goes back beyond Bethlehem, back to the Old Testament, back to the Law given the Chosen people through Moses, further back to creation. And then he goes up, as it were: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ This isn’t a beginning in time, but the Beginning which is God, the Beginning before the beginning, the Source, the Origin. And God, he says, is not a lonely loner, not ‘me, myself and I’, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is a furnace, a fountain, a universe of life and love. God is the Father reproducing himself in a Son or – another image – speaking a Word which expresses himself perfectly. And this Word was always with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. And all of creation comes into existence through him. He fills it with life and light. He reveals himself in some way to every human being. He revealed himself, still indirectly, to Israel through Moses and the prophets. Even in the darkness, despite the constant human rejections, there was always some light from the Word. He was coming closer and closer. Then comes the roll of drums and the blast of trumpets: ‘the Word became 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 is John’s Christmas. ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ Christmas is God letting us into his secret, sharing his innermost self. So the baby at Mary’s breast is the Son who is always resting on the bosom of the Father. The man who turned water into wine, raised Lazarus from the dead and gave up his spirit on the Cross, this man is the Word, the Son, God’s Self-Expression. He’s the One closest to the Father’s heart and has made that Heart known. Christmas is God’s gift of himself. It’s God opening himself. The rickety door of the stable is a door into God’s immensity.

Through it we can go: ‘to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’. Faith is the password that gives access to the divine ‘site’. Through faith, we can enter into the Son’s relationship with the Father. ‘I am the Vine, he says, you are the branches.’ I am close to the Father’s heart and you can be close to mine. The love I have from the Father will be yours as well. If my commandments are in you, if you eat my flesh and drink my blood, I will live in you and you in me, just as I keep my Father’s word, and he is in me and I am in him. My unity will be yours, my prayer, my obedience, my service, my self-sacrifice, my mind, my whole life, my love. And so my Father will be yours, my God your God. And you will live for ever.

This is the Christmas of faith according to John. This is the secret. This child, this Christ-life, born in us, growing, filling our lives with a richness of faith, hope and love. It means I’m no longer just ‘me, myself and I’. I’m no longer alone. We’re branches of the Vine. We’re sharing in the life and the love of another. We can enter into Jesus’ feelings and thoughts and will, into the whole direction of his life. We can live with him, renounce ourselves with him, please the Father with him.

Yes, there are many Christmasses. But this is the Christmas of John, a Christmas not just for Christmas but for life. Not just for this life, but for ever. The ultimate Happy Christmas!

‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 December 2016)


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122