Today we celebrate the greatest story ever told. So momentous is this event that Scripture itself struggles to express it. Here are some angles on it. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on those that dwelt in the shadow of death, a great light has shone… For unto us a child is born, a son is given.” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” “At many moments in the past and by many means, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our time, the final days, he has spoken to us in the person of his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the ages.”
These are all wonderful sentiments, but how much do they impact on us? There is a problem of déjà-vu; we’ve heard it before so we tend to switch off. If only we could be like the shepherds who hadn’t a clue what is happening when the angels appeared to fill the night sky. They were all eyes and ears full of amazement and wonder. And when the message got home to them they rushed to Bethlehem to see for themselves. But we have heard the story so often the danger is that we cease to wonder or be amazed. How can we get back the novelty of it all?
I picked up a book by Sally Read recently. She was staunchly atheist but then, in the space of nine electric months in 2010 she converted to Christianity. So atheistic was she that she knew nothing of the Christian story except that she was deeply anti-Catholic. But then it all changed. She was writing a book on female sexuality when, during her research, she spoke with a Catholic priest. That interview led her on a dramatic spiritual quest that ended up at the Vatican itself, where she was received into the Catholic Church.
Novelty is what I got when I read Sally’s testimony. Before her conversion she knew very little about the Christian faith. She was totally unaware of its beauty and depth. She had all the freshness and wonder of those shepherds on the hillside or the Magi coming from the East, or even of a child opening Christmas presents. As she began to explore the Christian faith her eyes were opened wide with amazement. She was stunned at how close God gets to us. She writes: “[God] reaches us wherever we are, even if we are so far from knowing him that we mistake him completely. His infinity always contains our finitude.” That ‘reaching us wherever we are’ is exactly what the gospel means when it says ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ A more literal translation is “he pitched his tent among us.” This describes Jesus as a kind of nomad willing to follow us wherever we go and wherever we stray. No matter where we end up after the day he will follow and pitch his tent, just to be with us. Should not this amaze us too, just like Sally was amazed!
When Sally came to believe in God, she was astonished to find that God was very personal and could communicate intimately with every soul. And this intimacy with God became more real in Christ. “One night, when I lay down, I felt someone beside me. There was a feeling of being known in every cell. My aloneness was taken away from me; and though it has often since returned, I know that loneliness is the illusion and Christ beside me the reality.” What a lovely way to express the other name Jesus is given at Christmas which is Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’! Christmas is meant to be a time of great joy, but for those who have recently lost a loved one, it can be a time of great pain and loss. For those who suffer such loss, is there not a possibility of allowing Jesus to be a companion here?
God did not shy away from our suffering and pain. Part of the pain is our own flawed nature that we bump up against all too frequently. Christmas tells us that it is because we are in such dire straits that the Word chose to become flesh to live among us. Sally writes very simply that ‘Christ has embedded himself in me’. Furthermore, she rejoices that Christ lives on in his Church and ‘Catholicism is the only solution to the human condition; the only thing that keeps us from falling all the way down.’
All this became a stunning new reality for Sally because of her growing faith and acceptance of Jesus. Acceptance is the operative word. The gospel of John has a mind-blowing statement. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Thus, the Christmas story is meant to be transformative. If only we can accept this good news we will become and be seen to become God’s very own children. This is the Christmas invitation. Come to Jesus. He will enable you – no matter what you’ve done, no matter how bad you messed up – Jesus will empower you to become a beloved son, a beloved daughter of God.
The Christmas story is ever old yet ever new. If only we can see the newness of this great story, like Sally did, then our response will be like that of St. Paul, in the reading for last night. “You see, God’s grace has been revealed to save the whole human race; it has taught us that we should give up everything contrary to true religion and all our worldly passions; we must be self-restrained and live upright and religious lives in this present world, waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus. He offered himself for us in order to ransom us from all our faults and to purify a people to be his very own and eager to do good.”
Sunday, 25 December 2016