Here it is! Christmas Day in the Year of our Lord 2022. “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod”, said a poet. He meant it in a weary, unhappy way. But generations have also trod in another way too, have taken the road to Bethlehem, generations of believers. And here are we doing so now, with a great crowd from the past behind us and a line of future seekers and believers before us, yet to come, our children’s children. We have felt, we do feel, and people will go on feeling, the draw and the call and the pull of this child. This child, Mary’s son and God’s, come into time from eternity, adding a humanity to his divinity, the centre of the universe asleep in a makeshift cradle.
One of the strangest things about the Christmas story, which is of itself so local, so “once upon a time”, beneath human notice, hidden by the noise from the pub and the bureaucratic business of tax registration… one of the strangest things is how everyone and everything is there. It’s as if the whole of heaven and earth has sent ambassadors to acknowledge this birth. Here are a woman and a man, archetypal. Here are shepherds, people who didn’t have a good reputation at that time, and Jews, and here in the magi are the distinguished representatives of science and wisdom, Gentiles. Here are angels serenading on the hills and animals shuffling around in their night shelter. And here is a star acting out of character. Here, above all, is a sleeping child.
And we have come home to “the still point of the turning world”.
Christmas is endless. It has birthed so much love, so much thought, so much music and poetry, painting and drama, high art and the simple art of cribs and children’s drawings and Nativity plays. It has changed so many hearts. It has provided hope in prisons and camps. It brings so many families together, however briefly. It generates generosity. It sparks charity. It turns us to people we otherwise neglect. It has inspired and still inspires. May it inspire us in turn!
To quote St Augustine, “Awake! For your sake God was made man! Awake, O sleeper and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. For your sake, I say, God was made man…Let us celebrate the hallowed day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short span of time” to fill it with his light.
How well Jesuit poet and saint of the 17th c., St Robert Southwell, put it:
“O dyinge soules! behold your living springe!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This Life, this Light, this Word, this Joy repairs.”
What is this Christmas, then?
There’s a story of young girl visiting her uncle. It was a time for grapes, and she was eating and eating them. “Be careful”, said her uncle, “your stomach’s too small for so many.” And she replied: on the outside my stomach is small, on the inside, it’s huge!”
What was true of her stomach is truer still, surely, of Mary’s child – small on the outside, vast within.
From the Christian community in Rome of the first few centuries, we’ve received the custom of three Christmas Masses: at night, at dawn and at the day. It is good just to celebrate one, but if we take the three together, we find ourselves led into the deep meaning of Christmas – to the hugeness in the littleness. And this Mass, the Day Mass, was the climax. Notice that it doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth; that was told unforgettably by St Luke in the midnight Mass. It doesn’t recount the visit of the shepherds; that came at the Dawn Mass. It doesn’t relate the coming of the Magi; that must wait to Epiphany. No, this Mass goes for the hidden hugeness. It was celebrated by the Pope and the Christians of Rome in the basilica of St Peter, and through the Prologue of St John and the Letter to the Hebrews it wanted to sing out to Rome and the world, urbi et orbi, St Peter’s confession: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. God has now spoken to us in his Son through whom he made all things. The Word who was from God, is with God, and is God, has entered our world, has become flesh. And we have seen his glory. And from this child, the true King, spreads out the true Empire, not the cruel Empire of Rome, but a kingdom of justice and peace and right relationships. “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God”, say the Psalm and the Communion Antiphon. “Let all the angels worship him”, says the Letter to the Hebrews. “Come, you nations, says the Alleluia verse, worship the Lord.” The ancient Romans worshipped the sun, but a greater sun, said the Christians, has arisen. The Romans worshipped their Empire and Emperors, but now a greater kingdom has come. Yes, Christmas surpasses everything. “Gift better than himself God doth not know. Gift better than his God no man can see. This gift doth here the Giver given bestow”.
Here is the hugeness of Christmas.
And what does it mean for us? I will let Pope Francis have the last word: “The Son of God, the one who is holy by nature, came to make us, as God’s children, holy by grace. Dear Sister, dear Brother, never be discouraged. Are you tempted to feel you were a mistake? God tells you, “No, you are my child!” Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from a tunnel of trial? God says to you, ‘Have courage, I am with you.’ He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you. In this way, he reminds you that the starting point of all rebirth is the recognition that we are children of God. This is the undying heart of our hope, the incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life. Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters.”
May this be our Christmas! Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 December 2022