“A child is born for us and a son is given to us.”
Today – I think we’ve all noticed it – is Christmas Day. And here’s a question: is Christmas just an anniversary? Just a story from the past? Or is it a power?
Our Entrance Antiphon suggests an answer. It says: A child is born for us, a son is given to us. It says “is..is”, not “once was”. And it says: “is…for us”, “is to us”. It’s all now and here. It’s what a poet called an “all-embracing birth”. It embraced Mary and Joseph and, with its warmth and simplicity, its peace and its joy, embraces us. And how can that be? Because the child who once upon a time was born in Bethlehem and lived a life that was brought to an end thirty or so years later, did not end there. Easter came, a tomb was found empty, followers and friends saw him alive. And clear it became that he had passed through death and had entered, body and soul, on a new kind of life. He was risen, free and present. And so, because of Easter, he can no longer only belong to the past. He is no longer confined to a particular time and place, to Roman-occupied Palestine, to Bethlehem and Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem, to the people he had known and the lives he had touched. “All that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all – participates in the divine eternity and so transcends all times while being made present to them all” (CCC 1085). The seed of his short life fell into the earth and died and rose and now can bear its fruit in all times and places, losing nothing and sharing everything. The Father has taken this life in his eternal hands and multiplies it in time. In all times, all places. All times: “I am with you always even to the end of the age”. All places: as the Psalm verse puts it, “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
So Christmas can’t be just an anniversary or a retrieved memory. It doesn’t retreat ever further into the past. Jesus’ birth is part of his person, part of him as God and man, part of the mission he received from the Father. It is, like everything in him, from conception to death, caught up in his Easter, and his Easter is always and everywhere.
This is why our liturgy says, echoing Isaiah: “A child is born for us and a son is given to us.” In every time and place. In every generation, every open heart. He is always being born for us. He is always the Word now taking flesh in us. He is always Mary’s son and the Son of his heavenly Father, making us sons and daughters of Mary and children of his Father, reproducing himself in us. And the angels can always proclaim: today a Saviour is born for you. Yes, Christmas is the all-embracing birth of our all-embracing Lord.
800 years ago, wanting to convey this very same message, St Francis of Assisi had the idea of re-enacting the story of Bethlehem, and so the first living crib came into being. 1200 years later what a multiplication of cribs there are! What a lasting inspiration that proved! And every year, in that same Greccio, villagers play the shepherds and the wise men and Mary and Joseph and all the rest. It is not just a tale from the past. It implicates us.
We are conscious – how can we not be? – of the sufferings in Ukraine, in Israel and Gaza, of Sudan of so many places. We see “Rachel weeping for her children”. And the Holy Father in response keeps saying, Go the crib and pray. Yes, pray before the new-born Child and pray, pray with real hope, for these terrible things will one day – soon, please God – disappear into the past and even the wounds they leave be healed by God’s grace. And the birth, life and death of Jesus are greater than they, more real, more alive. “Heaven and earth will pass away”, Jesus once said, but “my words will never pass away”. Something greater than sin and sorrow has been born.
And how is he born for us? He is born for us when we believe and are reborn to life in the Spirit by baptism. He is born for us in every inspiration of grace that we follow up; when we feed him in the hungry, visit him in the sick, console one another; every time our sins are forgiven. He is born in our faith, our hope, our love, our care for one another. Our whole Christian life is an ongoing birth, a growing up to the full stature of Jesus, carried by the motherhood of Mary and the fatherhood of God.
And how is he given to us? Well, we might think of the Eucharist, might we not? Everything he is is in the Eucharist, ready to break out in us..
So, we welcome him, we wonder at him, we worship him. We want this all-embracing birth to embrace and encompass us, encompass the world. We want our children, surely, our families and friends, our Aberdeen, to enjoy this great Christmas. There’s a young man who works on the rigs, from this very parish. On a last minute inspiration, going offshore he took a crib with him. He has set it up on the rig; he’s never ashamed to show his faith. And one colleague said, I’ll add a stable, another a tree, another a bird, and so it has grown and there it is: a sign in an unexpected place. May each and all of us be a living sign that a child is born for us, a son is given for us! Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 25 December 2023