He has arrived!
The journey to Bethlehem is over, Mary’s time has come, the child has been born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, there being no room at the inn. It feels as if what occurred two thousand plus years ago is happening again tonight. And in a real sense, in the sphere of the Holy Spirit, it is. Bethlehem isn’t just in the past. It’s in us. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins caught this beautifully:
- [He] makes, O marvellous! / New Nazareths in us, / New Bethlems, and he born / There, evening, noon, and morn
We have had a long Advent this year – an Advent “maximum” of four weeks. And Advent, really, is just a great cry, a great O Come, a cry for help. It’s a cry to God that he’ll break his silence, put an end to injustice, bring down the towers of power. We beg for dew to soften our dryness, for light to lift our darkness, for peace to still our conflicts. We long for Someone to put things right. There’s so much plain human truth to Advent. It reads our hearts and turns our hopes and fear to prayer. Even if our minds have been elsewhere, we are still part of the prayer of the Church and her cry to the Lord.
And tonight, we know this cry is heard and that the answer comes. “For there is a child born for us, a son given to us”. Mary held him. Recognising the gift. Our faith and love are arms as well.
Tonight’s Gospel begins with Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor of the time, issuing a decree – tax-related, of course – which has the unintended consequence of bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the town of David, fulfilling prophecy. The successors of Caesar Augustus are still around, governments and parliaments and councils are still issuing decrees, getting and spending for good or ill (or legislating ridiculously as our own Scottish Government recently). But something else has happened now. At the end of the Gospel, there’s another proclamation, from an angel of the Lord: tidings of joy, the birth of a Saviour in the ancestral home of David. Yes, in the centre of the Gospel, he is simply there, born, swaddled amd lying in a manger.
Of all possible answers to our distresses and desires how unexpected this one is. We have been masterfully, wickedly-humorously taken by surprise, disconcerted, wrong-footed, caught off guard, our proud expectations dismantled. The great divine irruption is…a mother and a child. A babe in arms, disarming us, and bringing us back to our humanity.
For God has an unsung attribute; let’s call it “genius”. And Christmas is its luminous expression. The world goes on and life goes on, this funny mixed-up thing, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Nothing much changes, in a sense. But in another everything is changed. A fuse has been lit, a fresh green shoot has sprouted. A woman and her child, a virgin holding God. So much with so little.
Of all the things… But then we remember how any child’s birth brings joy and changes everything. He or she, without a word, takes the household throne and upends the lives of mother and father, brothers and sisters. Everything is recast, night and day, work and rest, holidays and shopping, concerns and relationships. There’s a new centre. And the birth of this child, God’s Son and Mary’s son, is and does all this supremely. A cosmic rearrangement ensues. In the Christmas story, it begins. Everything seems to turn molten; everything starts to shift. There is movement everywhere. The Word becomes flesh. Mary and Joseph make the journey to Bethlehem, the angels break into song, the shepherds come down the hill, even the animals, surely, shuffle over to the manger to sniff and peer. A star moves across the sky and wise men trek over sand dunes. Everything is thrown off course and gathers at the new off-centre centre. The whole of creation seems to be softened, woman and man, shepherds and intellectuals, angels and animals, stars and straw. As the centuries pass, more and more feel the “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling” and “in the place where God was homeless, all men are at home”. Into the stable we press, young and old, poets, painters and musicians, theologians and saints, the poor and forgotten, attractive and ugly.
Yes, a baby sleeps and cries, perhaps, in the manger, and we recognise our cry is heard, and we are God’s children too. God’s genius, far more than cleverness, a genius of love. Our cry answered by God’s, by God making himself so fragile and close that we lose our fear of him. Not solving problems with fatwahs and decrees or new technologies, but simply being a love large enough for everyone. May it melt and move us in turn. May we feel it and further it and put our whole lives at its service.
St Mary’s Cathedral, 25 December 2022