Paraphrasing Pope Francis from earlier tonight: Tonight is a night of glory, that glory proclaimed by the angels in Bethlehem and also by us today all over the world. It is a night of joy, because from this day forth, and for all times, the infinite and eternal God is God with us: he is not far off, we need not search for him in the heavens; he is close, he is become human and will never distance himself from our humanity, which he has made his own. It is a night of light: that light, prophesied by Isaiah (cf. 9:1), who said that the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; that light shone on Bethlehem long ago and in the presence of Christ in our midst it shines still....
On this night of joy, we listen to a story, a simple story, the details of which we know well: Caesar’s decree, a census; Joseph and the pregnant Mary’s journey to Bethlehem; no room in the inn; shepherds; a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger; a birth, in the midst of a reign of tyranny, greeted with great joy. This story becomes a defining narrative for all of human history - the beginning of a story which shapes the way we see God and we see ourselves. God is there; our deepest identity and true hope is there, in the manger.
What does the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, tell us about God?
This year I started my Christmas video by telling the story of the kindergarten teacher who asked her class to draw a picture. Walking past their desks, she saw one little girl working with a great deal of focus on her drawing. The teacher said "What are you drawing?" The girl replied, "I'm drawing God." The teacher said, "But no one knows what God looks like." "They will in a minute," the girl said.
A little bit like the girl in the story, God the Father, the author of creation, shows us in Jesus the face of God. It's not just a sketch, but a full immersion into human life. God the Word, wanting to speak a word of boundless love, takes flesh. And when in Jesus we saw God's face, it wasn't what we were expecting to see. God doesn’t appear in the grand hall of a royal palace, but in the poverty of a stable, a child born into a broken world; not in pomp and show, but in simplicity, vulnerability and poverty; not in power, but in smallness.
That notion of smallness holds a key for us. Early church fathers used an interesting phrase to speak of Incarnation; they said that in Jesus the eternal Word becomes 'abbreviated', made 'small enough to fit in a manger,' so that we might see with our own eyes, and touch with our hands, the word of life. In the Incarnation we learn that God is willing to go to any lengths in search of us: even to the point where the all-powerful becomes all-fragile; the 'Ancient of Days' is carried in a womb, the author of existence is born in a manger, the 'Master of the Universe' is wrapped in swaddling cloths. All this, so that we might have life in God.
This is a favourite theme of Pope Francis, who prays to Jesus: “You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.” He often talks about God's hands. "We are in the hands of God from the beginning", he says, with his hands creating us from mud, from the earth, like a craftsman making us in his image and likeness. Furthermore, God takes us by the hand and walks with us on the paths of life, caresses us like a mother, taking little steps with us like a father, comforting us in our darkest moments, with gentleness and patience. And in my favourite quote of all in this regard, he writes "God meddles in our miseries, he approaches our wounds and heals them with his hands; it was to have hands he became human."
Very much along the same lines, the American poet e.e. cummings, in his sublime poem 'somewhere i have never travelled'. I think cummings has in mind one of the prophecies of Isaiah that we hear about at this time of year, where Isaiah speaks of the coming Messiah as the key of the house of David; “he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open” (22:22). Listen to how cummings depicts the gentleness and grace-filled subtlety of God's presence in our lives, as he addresses God:
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose.
or if your wish be to close, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: ...
nobody, not even the rain has such small hands.
That last line has always been a favourite of mine, and what it communicates is what reverberates from the manger: God is present in our lives in ways that are hidden, fragile, small and beautiful.
St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk back in the 12th century, writes that until Jesus was born, we could say ‘God above us', ‘God before us', ‘God beyond us', ‘God around us'; but with his birth, we come to know him as ‘God with us!' God who takes on hands, flesh, who becomes small to speak a disarming word of love; in order to come be with us with a boundless love. That’s a glimpse into what we learn about God from the birth of Jesus.
And what does it tell us about ourselves, about this human condition that we live? When God penetrates and inhabits the ordinariness of life in the Incarnation, we come to know that we don’t need to flee the human condition in order to find Christ. To be attentive to our fundamental human experience is to search for God in a place where God desires to be found; indeed it's the sacred terrain where the eternal God has come to find us. God knows what it is to be human, and meets us there; faithfulness happens in living deeply as and where we are. In the words of Leah Perrault, it’s a matter of showing up for our lives.
The Incarnation teaches us something of the great dignity of what it is to be human, for being human is the language God uses to speak his very self. The designs and dreams of God are woven into the fabric of what it is to be human. We come to God, God draws us to himself, through our humanity, in our living and in our dying. That’s a very important word that our faith speaks to our contemporary culture, where human dignity is often threatened, and certain lives are not seen as having much value. God speaks to us in our living and in our dying, in the light and in the darkness of our lives.
Let’s be clear. Human life is hard, and at times harsh. It is a beautiful thing to be alive, but it is not easy. In his Christmas meditation this year, Fr. Ron Rolheiser writes of the darkness: Our world remains wounded, and wars, selfishness, and bitterness linger. Our hearts too remain wounded. Pain lingers. Life is marked in part by incompleteness, illness, death, senseless hurt, broken dreams, cold, hunger and loneliness. Reality can be harsh. It’s certainly not all darkness, but the human condition has more than a little share of struggle and suffering.
And that brings us to the heart of what I think we might learn about ourselves from the Incarnation. We learn that despite it all, life is a gift; it is holy; it is a blessing. This human condition is loved by God, who authored it, just as we, each one in particular, are loved by God who authors us. God loves this human condition that we so often struggle with. God loves this created world, loves us stumbling human beings, loves us enough to give himself to redeem us. And God asks us to love it too, our wounded world, to love (in the words of Mother Teresa) Christ in his most distressing disguise in our wounded and broken brothers and sisters, to love enough to spend ourselves generously, year by year, day by day, at the service of God’s great dream for humanity.
Our readings began with a word from Isaiah: the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who dwell in the land of gloom, a light has shone. God is so much in love with us that he has drawn near, drawn near in an altogether extraordinary way: the eternal Word has taken on human flesh, human vulnerability, in order to embrace us in tenderness and help us to live and to love.
The birth of Jesus is the start of a narrative that comes to its culmination in the paschal mystery and at Pentecost. There is a direct thread joining the manger and the cross. The child born in the manger grew, and the face of love was revealed in his actions. The child grew, and the merciful face of God was revealed in his words. The child grew, and in his living, dying and rising again, a word was revealed which was so good that it is hard to believe it. A depth of an undying love, the power of life over death, a hope which bursts forth from the deepest darkness....
But for us today, knowing all that is coming, it is enough to sit before the little one. In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is: we need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small.
Pope Francis ended his midnight Mass a few hours ago with the following words: Let us touch the tenderness which saves. Let us draw close to God who draws close to us. Let us enter into the Nativity with the shepherds, taking to Jesus all that we are, our alienation, our unhealed wounds. Then, in Jesus we will enjoy the flavour of the true spirit of Christmas: the beauty of being loved by God. With Mary and Joseph we pause before the manger. Contemplating his humble and infinite love, let us say to him: thank you, thank you because you have done all this for me. And for us and our world. Friends, let us bend down and bow low before the Christ child. Come, let us adore him.
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