In a recent email to friends, a monk – one of my brethren – wrote, “What happens every Christmas has happened again.”
He meant he was only halfway through his Christmas-card list. He meant he wasn’t ready. He hadn’t done the good things he had meant to do. Putting words into his mouth, he was saying he was in the usual mess. If it was just a matter of not having sent a few Christmas cards, we would hardly care. But we know from our own experience how far further our unfinished business goes. If we had a 6-week Advent, an 8-week Advent, would we be ready? Would everything in our lives and relationships and souls be neat and tidy, and in order? Would we have fulfilled our good intentions? Would we have reached out there or responded to that call on our charity or said sorry, or thanks, where we meant to? Would our lamps be burning as bright as they might?
“What happens every Christmas has happened again.”
And then it dawned on me: it really doesn’t matter. As Catholic Christians we are not Pelagians. The Pelagians, heretics from centuries ago, taught that with a bit of effort all of us could get to heaven. We have more sense, I hope, than to think that. We do better to follow St Augustine: Grace is the thing. At this time of the liturgical year, all the best lines belong to Isaiah. “Break into shouts of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem.” You ruins of Jerusalem. That’s what the Lord has his eyes on. That’s where he heads for – consoling, redeeming, baring his holy arm, bringing salvation.
“What happens every Christmas happens again.” Flip that over. What happens every Christmas is that the grace of the first Christmas becomes live for us. As it’s remembered, it’s re-actuated. “Grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.” He is born for us, God is among us, sins are forgiven, grace is given. A great light shines upon the earth. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. He has spoken through his Son. Mary has had her child. The wellsprings of the sacraments are opened up. Heaven has come to us. And that, very simply, is Christmas.
In our own lives, haven’t all the best things, the things that hold us together and take us forward come undeserved, unimagined even, “out of a clear blue sky”? The people we have really loved and who have shaped us? Our friends, our life partners, our children, our vocations? They’ve come undeserved, gratuitously. We talk of the “gift of faith” and the “grace of baptism”. Did we invent the Eucharist, or forgive our sins? “Every good and perfect gift”, says St James, “comes from above.”
And Christmas, when God the Father sends his Son, when Mary has her child, is the great sign of this. “God has loved us first.” He has brought joy to the ruins. And nothing else matters. Christ comes to bring us back to the essential, the Holy Father said last night. And what is the essential? That he loves us, wants us as children, not salves, and wants us for ever.
Imagine a great family row: between husband and wife, or mother and child, or brother and sister. Or a fall-out between friends. And that suddenly one of the partners to the row stops shouting, looks at you, comes over to you, and gives you a hug or a kiss and says, “I love you.” Not as a trick, not as a species of manipulation, not glossing over real difficulties, but from their heart, because they know that this is not what the relationship or friendship is for, because they really do love you. Might we not then suddenly stop, might we not think, Ah, I hadn’t realised – or I had once and I’d forgotten? Might we not even burst into tears and bury our heads in the person’s arms?
This is Christmas. This is what theology calls reconciliation. What happens at Christmas has happened again – “today”, as the Liturgy repeatedly says. God has come to us. God has stopped the row by a single, simple act, by a village girl with a child in her arms. The Father has kissed us on the mouth with his Son. He has entered the ruins, and the ruins now don’t matter a… We’re brought back to the essential. “We have seen his glory”. And this is his glory: unmerited love, visible in the Child. And the trees of the wood shout for joy and the rivers clap their hands, and the harps and the trumpets and the horns ring out their joy. And we are consoled. And there’s nothing for us to do but bury our heads and our hearts in his arms. Amen.