Saint George's Cathedral
25th December 2013
“Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.” At the heart of our Christmas celebration lies the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1 John 1:14) This is the central truth of the Gospel, the Good News, that God, almighty and all powerful who created everything out of nothing, stripped himself of his divine majesty and became one like us in everything but sin.
The whole of human history, the whole of salvation history over the centuries had been moving, under the influence of God’s Holy Spirit, towards that moment when God would reveal himself in a unique way. And he revealed himself not in an earth shattering display of divine power and majesty, but in the humble birth of a vulnerable little child. It was a birth which took place in the most inauspicious circumstances in an obscure town in Palestine: in the darkness of a cold night, when the people were totally wrapped up in themselves and their own concerns, unheeding and insensible to the needs of a young woman who desperately needed somewhere to give birth to her child.
Yet the understanding of the God of the Old Testament was twofold. He was at the same time perceived as an avenging King who would come in great power and majesty to slaughter the enemies of God’s people and restore the Israelites to the Promised Land, but at the same time a God who was full of mercy and compassion, a God of great tenderness. So how could this little child, born in poverty, be that God?
That question reminds me of the story of a farmer who was puzzling over that question one Christmas Eve. He was warm and snug in his farmhouse, sitting by the fire and watching the snow fall outside. Then, after a while, he heard a thud on his windows, and then more thuds. He thought it was children throwing snowballs at the house, so he went out to see what was going on. There were no children, only a flock of small birds huddled miserably in the snow and occasionally flying up to the lighted windows, obviously attracted by the light and the prospect of the warm fire. He felt pity for them. So and went and opened the doors of his barn, put on the lights and laid a trail of food to the barn doors, but they wouldn’t go in. Then he tried to shoo them in, but that only frightened them and they scattered in every direction.
It really upset him that he couldn’t help these poor creatures and said to himself, “If only I could find a way to get them to trust me.” And suddenly the light dawned. He realised that from the little birds’ perspective, he was a giant, a strange and terrifying creature who they thought was out to do them harm. And it was then that he remembered the words of the angel to the shepherds on Christmas night: “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord . . . a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And then the farmer said, “Now, O Lord, I understand why you came to us in the way you did - why you had to become one of us.”
Yes, filled with the overflowing riches of divine love, compassion and mercy, the almighty and all powerful God came to heal a broken world, and he did it in a very human way. In the words of St. Paul, “You know how generous our Lord Jesus has been: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.” (2. Cor. 8:9) Out of his infinite love for us he chose to be born into a poor family, in a poor, obscure town in the Middle East, and spent the greater part of his life on earth in another poor town, Nazareth. When he began his public ministry “he had nowhere to lay his head”. He reached out to the poor, the rejected and those in need, preaching the Gospel to them, healing the blind, the deaf, the dumb and those who were crippled. That self-giving love was supremely fulfilled when he gave his very life for us by dying on the Cross. He had nothing more to give and he died stripped of everything.
That unconditional gift of himself continues to be given to us. As Pope Francis put it recently, “What took place most singularly in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us, spiritually, when we receive the word of God with a good and sincere heart and put it into practice. It is as if God takes flesh within us; he comes to dwell in us, for he dwells in all who love him and keep his word. Let us ask ourselves: Do we think about this? Or do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event which has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. It means giving him our hands, to caress the little ones and the poor; our feet, to go forth and meet our brothers and sisters; our arms, to hold up the weak and to work in the Lord’s vineyard; our minds, to think and act in the light of the Gospel; and especially our hearts, to love and to make choices in accordance with God’s will.”
To reconcile what we celebrate today with the world as it is, we need hearts full of faith. We need hearts which are thrown open to receive the greatest gift God could have given us - the gift of himself. So we might make our prayer today: ‘Lord, open our ears that we may hear. Open our eyes that we may see. Open our hearts to welcome you into our lives.’ Then with great joy and deep faith we can make our own the words of Zechariah: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel! He has visited his people and redeemed them. He has raised up for us a mighty saviour in the house of David his servant, as he promised by the lips of holy men, those who were his prophets from of old … He will give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death, and guide us into the way of peace.”