How good to be in Bethlehem again! How good to be around the Crib!
Our situation, inner or outer, can diminish our receptivity, it’s true. But even then… And if our heart is ready and the field is open, how Christmas can enchant us! How its tenderness can touch us! It’s as if the carols and tunes, the readings and prayers, decorations and candlelight, the dark and the night, all subtly serenade us to Bethlehem and pipe us into the manger. It’s as if we’ve come home after a long and difficult journey. It’s good to be here. With Mary and Joseph. With God the Father gazing at his Son in his fresh, newborn humanity. With the Holy Spirit gathering the shepherds and the angels round the manger, and far more than them: all the generations of seekers and believers and adorers, and us too. Even, ‘the sea and all within it…the land all it bears…all the trees of the wood.’ Yes, it’s good to be here.
A Syrian monk and deacon, St Ephrem, said many centuries ago, ‘this night brought peace to the whole world: let no-one be angry or cruel. This night brought stillness and calm; let no-one threaten or disturb. This night belongs to the gentle One; let no-one be bitter or harsh. This night belongs to the meek One; let no-one be haughty or proud…This day is the day of rest; let no-one break its peace.’ Yes, it’s good to be here.
Tonight, I think, we can let ourselves be charmed, be entranced. We can give ourselves permission to believe, and let the objections and perplexities fall silent, and all the noise of the world. ‘Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ We can leave Caesar Augustus and Quirinius and Herod behind. ‘God’s grace has been revealed’, says St Paul. There’s our focus. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given’, says Isaiah. And so the angels sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to people who enjoy his favour’. The Christmas Liturgies recreate this birth, renew it, re-present it. They transport it into the here and now. A second Christmas, if you like. They make it something ‘for us’ – tonight in Aberdeen or in Auckland or Kazakhstan or Patagonia. The birth of Christ is like a musical score and every celebration ‘performs’ it again, makes it new and alive. And so every Christmas, like beautiful music, can take us in. Not dupe us, but seduce us. Take us away from falsehood and nonsense, away ‘from everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.’ carry us into the realm of God’s grace.
It’s fashionable at present, when re-creating the first Christmas, to emphasise the chaos there must have been: the milling people in the overcrowded town, the makeshift shed, the stink of the animals, the worry and concern of Joseph and Mary. All very true, no doubt. But there’s a Christian instinct also that, at the heart of it all, there was a silence and a stillness. The child must have slept, surely – not just cried. An extraordinary thing: the Word was wordless. God was asleep. The Word just this tiny body. The Word simply this sign: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The silent presence of God. The Son at peace in the bosom of his Father. ‘This night brought stillness and calm,’ said St Ephrem. ‘Let no-one threaten or disturb.’ ‘Keep yourself at peace, ‘said St Seraphim of Sarov, ‘and thousands round you will be saved’. The child in the manger did that first, and his peace has saved many more than thousands.
There is a third Christmas, then, that of the heart. ‘Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us’, says the Catechism (526). This Christmas began in the stillness welling up in Mary. It was in the steady, manly faith of Joseph. It’s the stillness of the Son resting in his Father. And like a migrant, it looks for ‘settled status’ in us. Christmas no. 2 – the liturgical Christmas – comes and goes. We touch the hem of its garment as it passes. But Mary surely never forgot that birth. She carried it all through her life. It was Christmas every time she thought of her Son. It was Christmas when she saw him again risen from the dead. And Jesus was always the son of Mary according to his humanity and the Son of the Father according to his divinity. And even on the Cross that peace, at some level, never left him. ‘This night brought stillness and calm; let no-one threaten or disturb.’ ‘Now my heart has become a crib waiting for Mary’s son’, said Edith Stein, and ‘[Mary] gives me her newly born child to lay in my heart’. Christmas no.3, the Christmas of the heart. No Herod or Hitler, no illness, no worry, no sin if we repent of it, need undo it. It’s a given. It’s the peace of Christ, a peace the world cannot give and cannot take away. So, let’s take it in again tonight; ‘let nothing threaten or disturb’. And as Christmas passes, let’s take it on into our January and February and all the rest, into our Lent and Easter, into work and holiday, into stress and unstress. Let’s take it, disciples of peace, into the peace-less world. Yes, it’s good to be here. What a wonderful, strange thing it is: the Word became flesh and a stillness is born in our hearts. Let’s wish each other this peace of Christ!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 2017)