Christmas works. Every year we have the same prayers, same readings, same rituals; we hear the same story; we see the same decorations. But it doesn’t pall. It’s always fresh. We can always be touched. As we get older, that’s a great comfort. I’m not so jaded that I can’t still be moved. ‘For there is a child born to us, a son given to us’ – tonight, once again, as if for the first time. ‘And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ The Roman Emperor issues his decree, his officials busy about, people take to the roads to be registered, a young couple among them. They come to the noisy, overcrowded village, the pubs and B&Bs are all full. There’s just a steading, and there it happens. ‘A child is born to us, a son given to us.’ And we turn aside, and there he is.
Here he is.
I know a gynaecologist. She has no children herself, but she has helped many come into the world. And she’ll always say, it is the most beautiful thing imaginable. Through the door of effort and pain, into the world comes this tiny, perfect being. As a new father said to me once, ‘you can’t watch this and be an atheist.’ God is with us, we say. It’s as if God wanted to live this himself, from the inside, as a human being, as one of us. God sees creation. He sees it, Genesis says, as good. He sees how, like a thoughtless child, we’ve scribbled over the page, spoiled the gift, or covered it with dirt. But like an archaeologist, God gets down on his knees, patiently scrapes away the debris and reveals the hidden treasure. He comes into our life, rescues the buried good that we are and gives it back to us. And he begins from the beginning, from conception, from birth. The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, took on our humanity in a woman’s womb.
Here’s an image for Christmas. It’s a marriage, a marriage between God and us in the person of Christ. It’s the primal marriage, which any others are called to reflect. It’s indissoluble. There’ll never be a separation or divorce. The angel proposed on behalf of God and Mary said ‘yes’ on behalf of humanity. At Christmas it was announced and celebrated. ‘The Bridegroom comes forth from his chamber’ and the wedding is held. On the Cross, the union was consummated when the Son made the ultimate act of love. Now it’s seated at the right hand of the Father, fruitful in history. It’s wherever Jesus is, God and man in one. It’s in the manger tonight. It’s every day on the altar. God with us. ‘Yes, like a forsaken wife, distressed in spirit, the Lord calls you back. Does a man cast off the wife of his youth? says your God… I did forsake you for a brief moment, but with great love I will take you back…for the mountains may depart, the hills be shaken, but my love for you will never leave you’ (Is 54: 6, 10). So, the angels chivvy the shepherds down the hillside to the reception in the stable. And to this wedding we are all invited. In fact it’s ours.
Things can catch the eye sometimes. Celebrating Mass recently, I noticed kneeling side by side a university professor and a primary school girl. They weren’t connected, they were together by chance, occupying empty places. And I thought: what a sign of what Christ does! ‘Wide is his dominion’, says Isaiah, ‘in a peace that knows no end.’ We’re all invited to the marriage feast: woman and man, young and old, wealthy and poor, simple and educated. Of course, a great personality can attract opposites, or love of a country can, or any of the great world religions. But Jesus does it more widely, more lastingly, at another level. This marriage creates a family. It creates the unity we call the Church. It joins the beginning and end, time and eternity, heaven and earth, angels and animals, Gentile and Jew, the visible and the invisible, the lion and the lamb, the child and the professor. ‘Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad, let the sea and all within it thunder praise, let the land and all it bears rejoice, all the trees of the wood shout for joy.’ In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there’s a Flemish painting dated 1515, an Adoration of the Christ Child, set at night. It has been pointed out that one angel and one shepherd have the faces of those with Down Syndrome, one of the earliest evidences of this condition, so often nowadays ended in the womb. Both are adoring. ‘Wide is his dominion.’ No one is excluded
All this is already hidden in tonight, ‘waiting in hope’, waiting to be unwrapped like a gift, waiting like a hidden explosion, waiting to grow.
‘For there is a child born for us, a son given to us.’ Here, tonight. What do we do with a baby? We take it in our arms. Mary offers him to us. The Church offers him. So here’s a spiritual exercise for tonight – for any time before the Crib; for the moment of Holy Communion, if we’re receiving him; for our hearts, whether we are or are not. Faith is enough. Imagine Mary offering you Jesus to hold and Joseph looking kindly on. You can hold him to your breast, you can kiss him, cuddle him, rock him, tickle him, or just look at him. Here’s the thing. If we were in Aleppo, we could do this. If we’ve just lost someone close to us, if we’ve just lost a job, if we’ve just mucked up in some way, we can still take the child in our arms. He’s greater than anything wrong. ‘Dominion is laid on his shoulders.’ And he is given to us and we can hold him. So, everything is changed. Everything is reframed. The context is different now. Everything can always begin again. We’re holding hope, we’re holding a future. We’re holding the marriage of God and us. We’re holding joy. And why? Because he’s Emmanuel, God with us, and he is holding us. Listen to the angel: ‘Today in the town of David, a saviour has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord.’ Let us open the arms of our heart and hold him close. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 December 2016)