The Nativity, by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
One of the great early Christian leaders, St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), teaches that Christmas is a “festival of re-creation”, that in the birth of this Child the world has been recreated. It is the beginning of the renewal, sanctification and re-creation of the entire universe.
The same understanding of Christmas is echoed in the Orthodox Liturgy:
"Your coming, O Christ,
has shed upon us a great light.
O Light of Light, Radiance of the Father,
you have illumined the entire creation!"
The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), abolishes the boundaries between man and God, matter and spirit, secular and sacred, seen and unseen. The very world through which we stumble on our pilgrimage into God is now tinged with sacredness and glory.
It’s just as well, because there are times when we experience this world as a place of exile, a vale of tears, an environment of undeserved suffering, pain and confusion. It is for many a source, not of joy, but of unrelenting depression and despair. (Those who are blessed with a confident faith, or who have never faced such agonies, or who have grown through them, are called to be gentle and sensitive towards others whose pain and inner anguish causes them to doubt even the existence of a loving God.)
For me the real magic of Christmas is not the “feel-good” stuff so much as the transcendent Lord of glory and love entering into the fulness of all that it means to be human, so as to redeem, renew and transfigure everything about life in this world, including the miserable bits, from the inside. (St Paul talks about that in Romans 8).
But I’m no Scrooge! There is nothing I would do to diminish the exuberant joy of Christmas. But let's not forget that those God chose to participate in the first Christmas had a hard time of it. Mary and Joseph shunted from pillar to post, desperately looking for somewhere to stay. Jesus born in a smelly cave where the animals were kept. All those little boys slaughtered by the power crazy Herod, their mothers wailing and their blood running in the streets. The Holy Family living as refugees in Egypt until it was safe to return to their own land.
The Lord of glory and love entered into the fulness of what it means to be human, in the kind of circumstances in which most people have lived and died . . . violence, killing, exploitation, anguish, poverty and the despair we see all too often on the television and in our own streets. It is REAL human life to which God is now joined, and which is being transfigured bit by bit in him.
Love Divine invades our world to effect a union of the divine and human that can never be dissolved; a union in which God so freely and at such great cost gives himself to us as the Babe of Bethlehem, the Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Calvary whose sacrifice of love brings us back to the Father, the Risen, Ascended Lord, AND the Food of eternal life in the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion we receive at Mass, in our parish Church which is OUR “Bethlehem”, OUR “House of Bread” (which is what the word “Bethlehem” means).
So, if we feel as if we’re hanging on to Jesus this Christmas just with naked faith, that’s OK. We have a place in the prayers of many others. We dare to trust in the goodness and love of our Incarnate God and in his purposes, knowing that he is our King of Kings, our Lord, our loving Saviour, our wonderful Redeemer, our firm Rock, our Hiding Place, the one who wipes our tears away and heals us deep within. We also remember that he who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion (see Philippians 1:6).
One more thing . . .
One more thing . . .
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell!
Who knows the cruel torment of mind he suffered, as much from the treatment as from his illness! What we can say, however, - and this is so wonderful - is that although locked up and written off as insane according to the "wisdom" of the age, this man at least some of the time anchored deeply into a reality, an experience of God, that broke through the darkness, flooding his soul and his prison cell. That was far more real to him than all the darkness, all his torments and all his anguish put together.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
So, let's remember that whatever our circumstances, our happiness, our blessing, our joy, or our pain and sorrow, to open up our hearts to the Lord during this Christmas season, and allow him in his own way to touch us with the wonder and sacredness of his love.