We’ve made it. We’ve got here. We’ve made the journey of Advent. We’ve arrived with Mary and Joseph. Here we are at midnight in the bright stable of our church, ready to worship the child. Perhaps just in from our work, like the shepherds. Not shown the way by angels directly, but thanks to the Mass-times given in the bulletin or website, or thanks to friends.
What strikes me, year after year, is how God, as it were, slips in under the radar. How quietly, surreptitiously he comes. Like a thief in the night. I think tonight’s Gospel evokes this wonderfully. It opens with Caesar Augustus and his census. It opens with this colossus, the most powerful man of the day, the first of the long line of Roman Emperors. Here’s the machinery of government at work, a major act of administration, a census of property-holders. Here are local functionaries, like Quirinius, suddenly facing a huge added work-load. Here are ordinary citizens, having to present themselves before officials, to register, many like Joseph having to make quite a journey to do so. And, all in the end, to pay up. Here, even in a little place like Bethlehem, is all this swirling activity. Had there been televisions and newspapers, how full they would have been of it! Here’s a hotelier, an inn-keeper, run off his feet. Glad at the trade no doubt, but how will the kitchen cope? And out on the hills are shepherds doing their usual, looking after sheep, swapping stories round the fire. Here’s the world, really, in its usual colours, a mix of disturbance and routine, excitement and boredom, money and worry, with the odd surprising joy or sudden tragedy (like the poor folk in Glasgow). Here’s life, really, as it always is. And in the midst of all this a weary couple are finding their way to a cave in the hillside used for keeping animals, and a woman is having a baby in the hay.
And this is the way God enters the world. No fuss. As a baby. In such circumstances. A baby who doesn’t do anything unusual but just ‘babies’ on, as it were. Here he is, the first-born of all creation. Here he is, the still centre of the turning world; the mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds; the treasure hidden in the field of time. Here he is, as an old Welsh poem has it:
Strong, mighty, frail.
Of pale cheeks,
Wealthy and needy,
Our Father and Brother,
Author of judgements:
Lowly and lofty,
Heart’s honey [Honey for our heart]
(from Geni Crist – the Birth of Christ, by Madog ap Gwallter, fl. c. 1250, tr. Sr Laurentia Johns OSB).
It’s all so hidden, so under wraps and swaddling-clothes, only faith can see it. Without light, we’ll never see the mystery. So here are the angels and the glory round them: ‘Today a Saviour has been born to you.’ Here are the torches of prophets and apostles and evangelists to escort us to Bethlehem. Here is the bright flame of the Creed to show us who this baby is. Here are the words and signs of the liturgy to kindle our heart to faith, to open our eyes in the dark of our self-absorption.
And year after year it happens, I think. Year after year, the flickering flame of our faith is rekindled. We make our way, past the pub, through the slush, and into the stable. We enter a circle of light and warmth, ‘radiant with the splendour of the true light’. And we’ve stumbled on the centre of the world. Here’s the secret furnace of the Father’s love, the hidden hearth, ‘the place where God was homeless and all men are at home.’ ‘For in the mystery of the Word made flesh’, as the Preface says, ‘a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind.’ ‘God’s grace has been revealed’, and ‘the people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.’ And we really do feel God is here: we’ve seen him, we touch him, we taste him, honey for our heart.
After this, after adoration, after asking forgiveness for losing the plot again and again, I think there’s only thing left for us to really bother with. After relighting our lamp, there’s only one thing left to be. There’s only one grace to ask for. It’s to carry on God’s hidden work. To be children of light in turn and pass the flame. One night, at the heart of that ancient Rome-ruled world, on the edge of a Palestinian village, with mankind at that particular stage of development, a light was lit. And now it’s ours. Now it’s in us or it’s nowhere. And we are in our particular time and place, with our Caesars and censuses, excitements and boredom. ‘Faith is not a light, said Pope Francis, which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.’ And that’s enough. It was enough for the shepherds to find the stable. Let’s use it. Use it against the darkness in our heart. Use it to help others on their journeys through the night. Use it to get the architecture of our relationships right. Use it to create new circles and centres of light and warmth, family and friendship: homes and parishes and communities where we can breathe and hope and pray, and feel human again. New Bethlehems, new Nazareths.
‘Stay with me Jesus’, goes a prayer of Bl John Henry Newman to Jesus, the Light of the Soul, ‘and then I shall begin to shine as You shine: to shine so as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from You…It will be You who shine through me on others…Give light to them as well as me; light them with me, through me. Teach me to show forth Your praise, Your truth, Your will. Make me preach You without preaching – not by words, but by my example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do – by…the evident fullness of love my heart bears for You’ Amen.
Then Christmas won’t be something we take out of a box once a year. It will run like a stream through the whole of our life.