“And she gave birth to her first born Son and wrapped Him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn” Luke 2: 7.
My brothers and Sisters in Christ, the world in which we live is fast paced. Technology has transformed the landscape. We do not get accustomed to one gadget before another is placed on the market with additional features. As someone has put it “the only thing that is constant is change”.
Yet in the face of all of this we cannot help to be amazed that every year the old, old Christmas story has a tremendous impact on us. We have not grown weary of this ancient story and the figures of the babe, the manger, the shepherds, and the wise men. After 2000 years of repetition, why do you suppose the events of Bethlehem still lay hold of our deepest feelings and continue to intrigue us? Is it simply the momentum of an established tradition, or is there another secret to this powerful vitality? As far as I am concerned there is more here than the re-hatching of an old story.
For sure the power of tradition is present, but along with this there is another force that is much more potent; namely, a “simplicity that is rooted in profundity.” In the Christmas story we have something that can be grasped immediately and concretely by the youngest and the most profound of minds. One explanation for the perennial appeal of Christmas is that it represents the coming together of opposites. If either side of the matter was not present, the Christmas story would not be what it is and what it has been.
The Christmas story is a perfect balance of the immediate and inexhaustible, the certainty of the known and the beckoning of the unknown. Today, let us look at the miracle at Bethlehem, what led up to it, the event, and the responses to it.
Both Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, a hilly town in Galilee. Why were they in Bethlehem and why was Jesus born in a stable? If we look deeply into these events, we see the coming together of human harshness and human kindness.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to meet the requirements of the Roman Census. Each man was required to return to his place of birth. The census was strictly a male affair. In light of her maternal condition why was Mary taken? We recall how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, that the Holy Spirit of God would accomplish this. This occurred when Mary was legally engaged to Joseph. They were not married. You can imagine the whispers which circulated around Nazareth as the months rolled on. We know how cruel people can be in such a situation. It is not unthinkable to imagine that in order to spare Mary the embarrassment of the wagging tongues that Joseph used the occasion of the census to take Mary to Bethlehem. This was not an easy choice. Mary had to face the pains of childbirth without any feminine assistance. She had only Joseph and the animals to help her. She had been driven far from home by the harshness of people.
Yet the fact that Jesus’ birth happened in a stable represents the other extreme that comes together in the scene at Bethlehem; namely human kindness. The inn was crowded. The only place with some privacy was a cave where animals were housed. The innkeeper no doubt realized this and he offered it to Mary and Joseph. The innkeeper should be praised for going out of his way to help this refugee couple in this time of need. Let us spare sometime today to remember refugees around the world, many of whom are in this situation as result of the harshness of their fellowmen. Pray for those who are providing sanctuary for refugees. The stable, not the inn, is a reminder of human kindness.
Human beings’ inhumanity to other human beings can be great at times. We do not have to look far to realize this. The sanctity of human life seems to be given scant regard as violent crime is on the increase in our islands and domestic abuse rises. The incidents of horror and terror around the world know no boundary. Yet at times, human beings can be very good to each other. This is typical of life itself – goodness and badness, pain and pleasure, insensity and care, all bound up together. In Bethlehem, both the shadows and light come together.
We move on to the event itself, for here we have the greater paradox. We cannot fathom this most profound claim ever made in history. God became a human being; divinity put on human flesh and blood. For a time, the creator of the universe came to live on earth among human beings. Talk about the coming together of extremes – this is at the ultimate level! That the omnipotent God would become vulnerable in a helpless babe. This is the miracle of Bethlehem that we celebrate today. God moved down the stairway of heaven and entered human history in the form of a little baby. He became who we are, that we might understand what he is. The extremes on that first Christmas night; divinity became humanity; and of his fullness we received, grace upon grace and truth upon truth!
There is another aspect to the mystery of Christmas – the response that followed the event. On that first Christmas night there was joy among the angels in heaven and among the simple folk on earth like the shepherds in the field and later on by old Anna and Simeon in the temple. One of the deepest dreams of the people had come true – that we might know what God is like and that he is with us and for us.
Yet on the other hand, there was the response of terror, particularly on the part of Herod, the King. On receiving news about the birth of the Christ child, he felt that his security was threatened. His response was a blood bath. He destroyed innocent children. The same event that carried the shepherds to the height of joy carried Herod to the depths of fear. This is not hard to understand. Isn’t this a reflection of us and our relationship with God? Part of us wants to know God and be guided by his truth, yet other parts of us rebel against his authority and realize that if he enters our lives, we will change, radically in some cases.
How do you react to this Christ event? In joy or in fear? Are you like the shepherds, who found in Christ the true shepherd of their souls and were fulfilled? Or are you like Herod who in the coming of Christ rejected his true king and fought back? The question posed every year at Christmas is this: ‘How do you react to this God who came one night to that “little town of Bethlehem?”’
I bid you think seriously on these things and may this Christmas be a turning point for you. Today and always, let us use the following prayer in our daily lives:
“Let your goodness, Lord, appear to us, that we, made in your image, conform ourselves to it. In our own strength we cannot imitate your majesty, power and wonder; nor is it fitting for us to try. But your mercy reaches from the heavens, through the clouds to the earth below. You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries” (Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090 -1153).
A Christ-filled Christmas to all.
Your friend and Bishop