Brothers and Sisters, why has he done this? Why has God become a human being? Why has the Word become flesh and lived among us? Why has the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature put his light under the bushel of human flesh, human nature? Why has the Son of the Father become the child of a woman called Mary, a baby with brittle fingers and tiny toes, something to warm and feed, to tickle and cuddle, to look at and smile at? Why have we been given God as our baby brother? This is Christmas. It’s a wonder. It’s meant to wow us. Every child we care about takes us out of ourselves. Every baby rescues us from selfishness. Every birth is astonishing. And this One still more.
At Christmas, we are given so much to help us understand – at least a little. Over the centuries, how much understanding has been shared and in so many ways. Think of Cribs and Crèches. It’s a tradition begun by St Francis in 1223 in the hill-top Italian town of Greccio, the first Crib the work of a craftsman called John. And so they have filled the world. In our not very religious city, there’s even one outside St Nicholas’ Kirk. (It had its adventures this year). I know a good lady in Aberdeen with more than a hundred in her house. The Holy Father has recently written an Apostolic Letter entitled Admirabile Signum (A Wonderful Sign). It’s a meditation on the Crib, its power to bring the Gospel to our hearts. I really suggest googling and reading it. It will only take you a few minutes. It’s short and sweet. Cribs bring Christmas close and us close to it.
Another avenue: think of Carols. They’re everywhere too. Where there’s Christmas, there’s carols. They open our lungs and our mouths. They go to the heart. They ‘re homely and sublime. They often have a story behind them. Take “O little town of Bethlehem…” It was written in 1867 by a six foot seven American Episcopalian priest, Philip Brooks, after a Christmas visit to the actual town. He just wrote it for the children back home and asked a friend to set it to music. He didn’t expect it to be remembered. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. And God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven.” Again, Carols too bring Christmas close and us to it.
We can think of all the poetry, the music, the song, the sculpture, the paintings, the films Christmas has engendered. So much art shared over the centuries, so much still burgeoning today. The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word has become paint and wood and stone and sound and lives among us. He lives in our eyes and ears and our hands. Some twelve hundred years ago (in 787) the bishops of the Church held a great Council in what’s now Turkey – the 7th Ecumenical Council. Cutting a long story short, they said that this translation of the Word made flesh into art is good. It brings the Gospel home to us. It extends the en-fleshment of Christ into the matter and flesh of the world, and so in to our lives.
Most of all, if we’re trying to understand, there is the Liturgy to help us, the worship of the Church. The Mass above all. The Mass is a daily Christmas. The Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary and gave God a human body overshadows bread and wine and changes them into the Body and Blood of Christ, his life-giving flesh. It is Christmas continued. The antiphons and prayers, the psalms and the readings, the prophets and the apostles: they too all reflect an understanding of Christmas inspired by the Holy Spirit. They bring what Christmas is into our time and space and they point us to the why. I mentioned the craftsman John in Greccio who made the first Crib. There’s another craftsman called John. He made a Gospel. It carries his name. We heard it just now.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” There is Christmas in a sentence. And hidden in that sentence is an answer to the why of the wonder. The Word who was in the beginning, is with God, is God; the Word that created; the Word that shines through creation; the Word that offers its light to every human being; the Word that cast its brightness on God’s chosen people, has at last entered the sphere of humanity, has become flesh, has taken on our human stuff. And he has “lived” among us. “Lived” is one possible translation of the word St John used. We can also say: He pitched his tent among us, set up his tabernacle among us, has dwelt among us, made his home among us. And why has he done this? Why has this happened? So we can make our home with him. We are close now. Ever since Adam and Eve left the garden, ever since Cain became a wanderer on the face of the earth, ever since the human race was scattered after the Tower of Babel fell, ever since Abraham left Ur and Haran for a land the Lord would show him, we have been on the road. We may or we may not have good homes, warm houses, close family – it’s a blessing if we do – but at the level of the heart we are all exiles, refugees, migrants, vagrants, wandering Jews, displaced persons, of no fixed abode, homeless. We all tend to evict each other too, unable to be under the same roof. We are all scattered and all in search of home. That is why Christmas happened. It’s why God was born in a ramshackle, make-do place on the edge of a village. It’s why the Word became flesh and made his home among us. So we at last have a home. Often in the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the word menein. It’s the root of our words “manse” and “mansion”. It means to “stay”, “remain”, “abide”, “make a home”. Repeatedly, in the Gospel Jesus invites us to make our home in him as he makes his in us: to make his love, his word, his commandments, his flesh and blood our place, our house. His house is the Father and he is ours. Home is always personal in the end. Mary’s home wasn’t Nazareth or Bethlehem. Martha and Mary’s home wasn’t Bethany. Peter and Andrew’s home wasn’t Bethsaida or Capernaum. It was Jesus. John’s home was Christ’s heart. “Make your home in me as I make mine in yours.” The Child who was born in a shed came to build us a house and call us home. Here’s the why: a place of communion with God and unity among ourselves, his risen Body, God’s Church, our common home. We find it in faith. We enter it when we pray. We live in it when we love. It’s where we learn to house each other, be homes to each other. Then the Word has really become flesh and lives among us.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 2019)