Monday, 25 December 2006

A Christmas Sermon

We tend to think of the Christmas story in a rather sentimentalised way – the cosy manger, the picturesque shepherds, the happy angels, the friendly ox and ass. It’s the beautiful scene that we see on countless Christmas cards. But let’s never forget that the Christmas story contains pure dynamite. It literally turned the world upside down.

The traditional Christmas Proclamation puts Christ’s birth in context: at a particular moment (the 149th Olympiad, the 752nd year after the foundation of Rome and the 42nd year of Augustus’ reign) timelessness entered time, the invisible God became visible. Today we marvel at the fact that the baby boy lying wrapped in swaddling clothes is the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor and mean and lowly,
Lived on earth the Saviour holy.
C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, puts it well:
The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself: was born into the world as an actual man – a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.(Mere Christianity)
From the first moment of His life on earth, it was clear that Jesus would be a very different Messiah from the one the Jews expected. He came to set Israel free – not from its temporal enemies but from evil, sin and death. He didn’t come as a powerful military leader but as a powerless infant. He is a great King but His first palace was a humble, dirty, uncongenial stable. Mary and Joseph could not even find a room in the inns of Bethlehem, a backward town on the margins of the Roman Empire.

The new-born King’s first courtiers were not the rich and powerful but local shepherds – and remember that shepherds in Jesus’ time were considered dishonest and listed among those ineligible to be judges or even witnesses in a law court. Outcast from respectable society but these rustics were visited by angels and became the first to pay homage to the new-born King.

Our Lord was born into poverty – He who created the Universe had nothing to His name: no clothing, no toys, no home, no food. And here’s the twist – that hungry baby came to be our food. It is indeed appropriate that בית לחם, Bêth lehem means ‘House of Bread’. It was in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ that the ‘Bread of Life’ came into the world. At every Mass, but in an especially meaningful way at Christmas, Our Lord Jesus Christ is ‘born again’ as the priest says the words This is my Body, This is the cup of my Blood. He comes to us to be our spiritual food. Just as the shepherds worshipped Christ in the crib, so we worship the same Christ present on the altar; hidden then as a helpless child, hidden now beneath the forms of bread and wine. In the Holy Eucharist Christ makes for himself a ‘house of bread’ and at Communion we truly have amongst us Emmanuel – God with us.

We rejoice today because that powerless baby has come to do battle with sin and death. In the end He triumphed – but He triumphed through a degrading death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. The mysteries of Holy Week and Easter are never far away from our Christmas celebration; they fulfil the story that begins today. Our traditional decorations of holly and the ivy remind us of this – ‘the holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn’, and ‘a berry, as red as any blood,’ making us think of the Passion; the ivy (and also the evergreen Christmas trees) signify the everlasting life which Christ won for us through his death and resurrection.

That’s why we rejoice today. That’s why we sing carols. That’s why writers and artists have celebrated the Christmas story down the centuries. Not just because we feel sentimental about the baby boy born to Mary and Joseph, but because that birth means something – it turns the world upside down, it defeats the world of darkness, it brings light into the world and it opens our way to Heaven.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing:
Come, adore on bended knee
The infant Christ, the new-born King.

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