Some late rays of sunshine on Christmas afternoon
Part of the Christmas morning homily
We are a part of a society which loves to ask questions, just so long as they are the right questions which supply the right, predetermined, answers. Anything which tends to rock the boat in terms of our view of ourselves and our place in the world is very firmly discouraged.
So there is a sense in which those who attend places of worship feel in a cultural sense a little bit like those sad groups of people who are forced to stand in the cold outside office buildings in order to smoke; tolerated but very definitely on the way out, a thing of the past and probably harmful to themselves and those around them. So be careful! What we are doing now at Christmas is a profoundly counter-cultural gesture.
But the problem with the Christian faith and with the Christmas message is that it does ask precisely the kind of awkward questions which on the whole society prefers not to be asked.
O come on, you might say, how does Christmas with its stories of angel choirs, shepherds and wise men, ask difficult questions? Surely, aren’t they just pretty myths to brighten up this dark and cold time of year?
Essentially the Christmas message underneath all the holly and tinsel and pretty packaging is one of salvation. But, as we know the problem with the idea of salvation is that we first have to admit that we need to be saved and to be saved from something. What? Our own human nature which so easily lapses into sin and egoism and alienation. The Christmas message uncompromisingly tells us that Christ saves us by becoming one of us and that he comes to heal the wounds of sinful humanity. The Christian faith is not meant to leave us as it finds us: it’s about conversion and continual change towards the reality of God. Of course, it has first to find us where we are, but it leads us to the the life without limitation, the life of heaven, the life of God himself.
But ultimately Christmas isn’t about our problems and our sinfulness at all, its about the overflowing of God's love. Because God is God this had to take place. God in Christ comes to save us through love and it‘s through love that we come to him.
But the difficulty with this idea that at the heart of everything is a relationship of love is that it’s so abstract: it can mean what we want it to mean - either a great deal or next to nothing. Christmas tells us that God is love but what does that mean in terms of concrete reality?
The great problem - the scandal - about the Christian message for many people is its particularity - that it refuses for most of the time to talk about abstract things at all. It insists that certain things happened at a particular time and in a particular place which have changed our human destiny, that because a baby was born at Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago nothing can be the same for the human race. Or to put it another way, God has done something concrete and specific to bring about our freedom and liberation from the things which lead to death.
What we are doing is celebrating the birth of a child. Of course, this child is True God of True God, the one who has come to save us from self-destruction, the one who has come to satisfy every good and right human impulse. And the love by which we are redeemed us is the love, that humanly impossible, sacrificial love we see in the scandalous particularity of the cross, the love shown in the the scandalous particularity of the sacrifice which is offered at the altar every time mass is celebrated.
'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...' These words from the beginning of St John's Gospel are part of the most divinely inspired attempt to spell out what happened at Christmas.
This can easily sound rather too abstract again, like celebrating an idea rather than a person. St Luke gives us something rather more down-to-earth, with stable and shepherds, something amazing no doubt, especially when we think of the choir of angels and their message to the shepherds, but something which seems much more concrete. In St John, all those specific details are gone and he tries to bring home to us the universal, significance of what took place.
But, in fact, far from being an abstract account of things, St John's Gospel is trying to get across this astonishing meeting of the cosmic and the everyday, that God has become a little child. This Word of God, through whom everything was made, has become one of us: 'we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth'.
St John enables us to understand the message of the Gospel as something makes sense of the whole of Our Lord’s life, not only his birth but his life, death and resurrection. And it enables us to see our lives in direct relation to his. Now we are not detached observers of a good man’s life but direct participants in God’s plan of redemption. When we see Jesus, we see God, not disguised and hidden away in human form but revealed to us in the only way we can take in as human beings, so that we can understand and see his glory. We see God as a man among men, vulnerably human in a world of vulnerable, fragile human beings. This is the image that we have, the very surprising image we have been given of the Word of God, through whom everything was made, as the infant Jesus of Bethlehem.
This astonishing revealing to us of the true nature of God in a final and definitive way in Christ has the effect of destroying the distinction between the divine and the human, and making what we regard as abstract and universal identifiably concrete and particular. It makes it our business,; it makes it part of our life. The fact that the Word became flesh doesn’t let us, in some esoteric sense, construct a God in our own image, something comfortable, undemanding, and out there beyond our reach and unconnected with our everyday lives. God has revealed himself - we don’t find him, he finds us. He has found us in Jesus Christ. And above all in a world of violence and inhumanity, of unimaginable suffering, the Incarnation doesn’t allow us to think of God as being somehow impersonally detached and indifferent from the concerns and cries of his people: he has become one of us so that we can become one with him. He shared our life so that we can share his. It’s in the midst of this amazing message of joy and good news that we are always confronted with the realities of the world in which we live - a world in which where violence and poverty and natural disasters often seem to prevail and cause us to doubt the goodness and even the existence of God. We grapple with that seeming contradiction all the time. Yet the message of the Incarnation is that God shares our pain & distress, that redemption for our world comes through the flesh, through divine - human solidarity and compassion. God acts through the power of love and not in displays either of power or of control. Our human nature and the operation of the world itself are not what God intends them to be and are constantly in need of redemption and healing. The Christmas message states baldly and simply that the meaning behind the mystery of human existence in a fractured world lies in God’s becoming man in Jesus Christ.