“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory” – from the Gospel of John just proclaimed.
At the Vigil, the Gospel comes from St Matthew. It’s Jesus’ genealogy as son of David, son of Abraham. It gives us Jesus’ Jewish, human origins. At the Night Mass and the Dawn Mass, the Gospels are from St Luke: the familiar account of Bethlehem and no room at the inn, of the shepherds and the angels: the lovely story of his birth. And now at the Day Mass, it’s St John who speaks. After the cello and strings, after the flutes, sounds the great organ. He, we could say, draws back the veil on this child’s divine origin: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” The universe is created through him. He has always been the source of any light in humanity, and now he has become flesh. He has come from the heart of the Father. He has come as his only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, so that we can become God’s sons through him. He has taken on flesh, our flesh, our humanity. It’s unimaginable. He has dwelt among us, pitched his tent among us, lived among us. And let’s add that, even though ascended into heaven, he remains. He is present among us in so many ways, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood not least. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Son.
How different those Gospels are, and yet they all tell the same story. Rather, the same story has spoken itself in these different ways. Emmanuel, God is with us. Christmas is endlessly, explosively versatile. It has burst into Gospels and doctrine and theology. It has translated itself into liturgy. It goes off like a firework in so much music (think of carols and hymns, think of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah and all the rest). It appears in so much poetry, so much painting, so much story-telling, so much stained-glass (ancient and new, charming and serious). And most of all, it is to detonate in us, with each of us God’s Gospel, each of us God’s work of art, each different, each unique, all united by our one and only Saviour, each of us meant to be and already becoming God’s saint. “It’s when Christ is formed in us, that the mystery of Christmas is fulfilled”, says the Catechism. The Child is born and grows, not just in his humanity, but in ours, shining out for the light of the world and the forgiveness of sins.
Perhaps, like Christmas itself, if a story’s worth telling, it’s worth telling again. So, here we go. Once upon a time there lived in Krakow, a Jewish rabbi, Isaac. Three times he dreamed that there was a treasure waiting for him by the Royal Bridge in Prague. So off he went – a long walk. On arrival, he found he couldn’t access the bridge; it was guarded. Every day he walked near it, but the soldiers shooed him away. After this had gone on for a while, the captain of the guard asked him, “What are you doing?” So the Rabbi told him about the dream. The man laughed and said, “Oh! Don’t be ridiculous, don’t believe in dreams like that! I had one once. I had a dream that there was a Rabbi Isaac in Krakow and that underneath his stove was a great treasure. Do you think I’d be such an idiot to go to Krakow, look for a Rabbi Isaac, get into his house and go under his stove? Forget it!” So Rabbi Isaac walked all the way back to Krakow, dug under his stove and found the treasure – at home, under the stove.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Born and given, the Treasure is there. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” He’s under the stove, in our flesh. Let our home be the stable, our faith be a Mary. Let us wrap him in gratitude and love! The shepherds, to our knowledge, weren’t particularly holy, weren’t particularly anything – just ordinary working people, whose conversation must have been about their sheep, their families and what a rotten Government they had. Until the angels interrupted. Until the noise of a crying newborn child broke the night – in their very own village, under the stove.
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Now everything falls into place. Now everything is re-configured. Now we don’t have to go looking for what will make us happy. It has arrived. We don’t have to make long journeys. We don’t have to be desperate to get things or defend ourselves or be approved of. I suppose all that stuff, so much the stuff of our lives, is just that we’re desperate for love. But it’s here. The Treasure is under the stove, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It has come; it’s here; it’s waiting for us to come home. Truth has sprung up from the earth – born of the Virgin. We just have to bend down and pick it up, and say, “I believe”.
We’re freed of so much tonight. We can leave so much baggage at the stable door. We won’t fit through it if we don’t. The freer our hands the fitter they are for holding this Child. And what frees us is this: we are infinitely, irreversibly loved. And, strange paradox, God has said this, first, as a defenceless baby. He’s loved us by making himself lovable, by silently asking for love. And so our desperation is turned around. We are “de-me-d”, as it were. We are freed. We bow through a narrow door and find a great space full of the very thing we most want: to love and be loved. And everything can start to come right. The One the eternal Father eternally, infinitely, irreversibly loves, his co-eternal Son, God from God, is now man from woman and laden with love – under the stove, in the manger, welcomed by Mary and Joseph, warmed and fed and warming and feeding us. Everything falls into place, and we as well. “To the place where God was homeless”, we can come home. We can, like the Rabbi, turn round from all our desperate quests and head for the Treasure at home. “Jesus, I believe in you; Jesus, I trust you; Jesus, I love you.” Or better still, just be still and look and hear the word of the silent Child.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 25 December 2020)