Well, we’re there – all but there. We will certainly be there by the end of tonigth’s Mass. We will be in Bethlehem and Bethlehem will be here.
There’s something conspiratorial about tonight’s liturgy, something so persuasive. It wraps us round with familiar music and words, with a mystical radiance and draws us on into the presence of the newborn Child. Isaiah is there, coaxing us on, so is St Paul. “A light has shone”, says Isaiah. “God’s grace has been revealed”, says St Paul. There is “news of great joy”, say the angels. An Emperor has issued a decree with effects he cannot imagine, a young couple’s journey is over, a pregnancy has come to its term, a child is born and, slightly offstage, up in the hills, some angels are premiering their new release – still being sung two thousand years on.
What is it that first Christmas brought and every Christmas since brings? More than mince pies and mulled wine and all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” (John Betjeman), dear and good as they are. Christmas brings a child. A gift of the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin: a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He is wrapped like a precious gift in swaddling clothes, ready to begin a human life like ours and at the same time unlike any other. Yes, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, just as some thrity years on he’ll be wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb, ready to rise and “easter in us”.
We welcome him.
“Welcome, says a poet,all wonders in one sight! / Eternity shut in a span; / Summer in winter; day in night; / Heaven in earth, and God in man. / Great little one, whose all-embracing birth / Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth” (Richard Crashaw).
Let’s gently, reverently unwrap this gift and say: in Jesus, God has shown us his face.
Let’s imagine ourselves visiting the stable-cave like the shepherds. We’d push past the shifting animals, feeling their breath. We would see and acknowledge Mary and Joseph; we’d sense they were special. But our gaze surely would be drawn by the child. Perhaps we’d experience what a poet imagines:
“The Babe look’d up and show’d his face. / In spite of darkness, it was day” (Crashaw).
In the middle of the night we’d have stumbled on light. Christmas is the outbreak of a face. Light, divine light, has shone in a human face. Here is the glory of God shining in the open, unthreatening, wide-eyed face of a child. God has uncovered his face to us and left us amazed. He has fulfilled the age-old blessing Aaron and his sons put on the Israelites: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num 6:25-26). The goal of so many pilgrimages to the Temple, seeking God’s face, has been reached in a hovel five miles down the road. So many longings of so many Psalms now assuaged by the presence of a baby: “Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord”. “Show us your face and we shall be saved.” No need like Adam and Eve after their sin to hide in the bushes from the face of the Lord (cf. Gen 3:8). No need, like Cain, to be hidden from his face by the darkness in our hearts (cf Gen 4:14). No need for our faces to fall, to grow dark, to turn into masks of self-defence. No need to “miss the many-splendoured thing.”
Literally, of course, we don’t see the actual face of Jesus, as the first beholders did. Nor do the Gospels leave us any precise description of it. But, surely, with the eyes of faith, with the help of centuries of icons, paintings and images, of the Shroud of Turin, with the Holy Spirit working on our inner eyes, our sense of Christ’s presence, with a habit of prayer, a person, a face, begins to form himself in our hearts.
A visitor from another planet might be rather baffled to see so many of us hunched over screens emitting a light and forgetting just to look at each other. Even humanly, don’t we really live by the light of the real, non-virtual faces around us: the smiles of friends and beloveds? When we love, isn’t it faces that delight us? What more bewildering than to be among strange faces, faces we cannot read? What more crippling than faces of hate around us?
In Christmas God has shown us his face in the face of a child. And Mary saw it first and furthest:
“Lady, see the depths of his dark eyes. / This locked gaze is what keeps God and man / together. It is true prayer…” (Sally Read, His Face).
Thanks to this face, we can see God. Communication is restored. Love is possible.
There may well be difficulties and darkness in our own lives and certainly so in the life of the world. Even life in the Church can currently feel less than wholly luminous. And so some ask, can we still keep Christmas? Shouldn’t we fast rather than feast? Shouldn’t we be taking to the streets and demonstrating or going on missions of mercy? These things have their place and Christmas calls us to respond. But to all the tragedies Christmas is our first response. Christmas is imperative to our survival. The angels’ proclamation must ring out again and again, like bells: a Saviour has been born to you. God’s grace has been revealed. A light has shone. A face has been lifted up to give us light. And without that face we will only turn darker still, wanderers on the face of the earth. “The Babe looked up and showed his face. / In spite of darkness it was day.” As Christians it is our duty, it is the most we can do for peace, it is our service, to seek his face, to proclaim this light that falls on every human face. It is the only light that can transfigure the world. It is the light of a face, a kindly light, the clear face of a child, which in time will be spat upon and buffeted, in time and eternity shine out in resurrection. A face that does not turn away from us, that is always there for us to turn back to, however trembling and ashamed we are. A face that is a star for our whole life, clarity for our mind, love-warmth for our heart and the only final peace. Amen.