ENDS: CHRIST IS BORN!
“You believe that Christ has
come among us,
sharing our humanity;
you look for him to come again.
May his promise give you hope,
and may his coming bring you freedom!”
(From the Solemn Blessing used at the end of Mass
The One who is never absent in his
is made present to us now in his weakness.
“God’s weakness is strength for the lowly.
From his exalted loftiness he made the world;
by his lowly humility he conquered the world.”
(Augustine, Sermon 196A,1)
The Incarnation of the Word of God
“proclaims the grace of God coming to us
without our having deserved it in any way,”
bringing “gifts of wisdom and knowledge.”
(Augustine, The Trinity XIII, 23&24)
The Gospel This Year
On the First Sunday of Advent we began the year of
reading from St Matthew’s Gospel. We put away
Luke for another two years – after Matthew this
year and Mark next. (John, of course, we read in Eastertime
In the season of Christmas, we will read from Matthew’s
account of Christ’s birth and infancy –
the story of the Three Kings, for example –
and from John’s magnificent Prologue about the
Word of God becoming flesh. But, even in this particular
year of scripture readings at Mass – Matthew’s
year – we will turn to Luke for the best known
and best loved account of Christ’s coming in
To Become Part of the Story
“At that time a decree went out from Caesar
Augustus….” As with all our well loved
passages in literature or music, the very sound of
those words brings to our mind in an instant the whole
story – here, of course, Luke’s story
of that first Christmas. That opening phrase acts
as a symbol: it suddenly conjures up a whole world
of meaning; it suddenly transports us into another
world, another place, another time. It breaks into
our ordinary life and lets us see other, new possibilities;
it expands our minds and our hearts. It allows that
story of two thousand years ago to become part of
the experiences that we have lived through.
You know that hymn, “Were You There When They
Crucified My Lord?” Well, no, I wasn’t
there in my physical body. It was too long ago.
But, yes, I was there. I am human, you see, and I
have been many places I haven’t been. (Yes,
you did read that sentence right.) I have never seen
Mt. Fuji but if you brought me to it now by some kind
of teleportation, I would know exactly what I’m
looking at. Ayers Rock in Australia – Uluru,
the native people call it – or the Parthenon
in Athens or the ancient Sphinx of Egypt – same
Christ Present for Us
But there’s something else here, something
more profound – more human, really, because
it’s not so automatic as learning what a far-off
place looks like.
I have taken part in the celebration of Eucharist.
Now, that celebration looks a bit like Jesus’
Last Supper. (It’s supposed to; Jesus set it
up that way.) But we celebrate it – indeed Jesus
celebrated it – to make present for us his death
and resurrection: the “mystery of faith”
– “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ
will come again!”
“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
you ask me? Yes. Yes, I was. (I was even part of the
reason it happened. You, too!)
The stories of Scripture are also supposed to give
us the feeling that we were there. On Passover the
Jewish people say, It is not our ancestors that escaped
from slavery, it is we ourselves. They – and
we – were there.
The Little Town of Bethlehem
Have you been to Bethlehem? I have not – bodily.
I suspect I won’t get to go. National Geographic
recently did a piece on poor Bethlehem. These days
Mary and Joseph couldn’t get in.
It’s a Palestinian city, walled in, with an
Israeli check-point as you enter. The only Jewish
people allowed in these days are the army on official
business. Not people like Mary and Joseph.
Matthew’s Gospel gives a high number of Bethlehem
children killed by Herod after he learned through
the Wise Men the likely birth date of that new and
dangerous King that had been born in Bethlehem of
Judea. Some people question whether the number could
possibly be that high.
Never mind. Whatever number ancient Herod missed
in his purge has been more than made up by people
over the centuries who have continued killing off
the descendants of those old Bethlehemites. In our
But the old town of Bethlehem? Yeah, we were there
– there on that night when human history changed
forever, that night that made everything different
from then on.
Warmth and Light
Luke’s story of Christ’s birth is gentler
than today’s situation. There is a warmth in
his telling. Matthew and Mark can be impersonal sometimes,
not Luke. Luke – praise God that we read him
now, in the dark of the year; that’s when we
We spoke in an earlier season about the stories Luke’s
Gospel recounts as we drew near the end of Lent and
toward the Passion of Christ, stories of forgiveness,
compassion, and mercy. Luke provides a good light
in which to see Jesus’ love and gentle care.
We talked of light that shines not just vertically,
but washes over things in a sort of horizontal, human
fashion, and brings out unexpected colors, new ways
of seeing things. That new-seeing, not-so-vertical
light brought blessing to the woman taken in adultery
and to the Prodigal Son.
Evening and Autumn
Such is the light of autumn. Such is the light of
evening – of the sacred evening time that begins
each new Hebrew day. A paradoxical light it is, for
it is evening and it is beginning, the setting of
the sun and the start of a fresh new day.
Luke shows us something else about the paradoxical,
horizontal light of evening that begins the day. That
light can illumine dark December nights on Judean
hillsides. That light can bend around the corners
of our human seeing and shine light into a dark womb,
one too old or one too new to have its own life and
It is a light that can enter anywhere, fill any life,
a young virgin’s or a sadly childless old woman’s,
Mary’s or Elizabeth’s. Or ours.
The Sweep of Luke’s Story
As Luke tells us the Christmas stories, we see the
great expanses of the universal heavens – and
we see the cozy, protective wrapping of tiny swaddling
clothes. The story begins:
“The angel Gabriel was sent
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Lk 1:26)
In the heights of Heaven the angel is sent –
to Galilee, the province, we’re first told,
then to Nazareth the town – to a virgin first,
some yet unnamed virgin – then, passing by her
husband and his royal ancestor, Luke gives us her
name in the gentlest, most reverent way: “and
the virgin’s name was Mary.”
What a beautiful phrase! Sometimes it would be nice
if English had all the nuances of reverence, awe,
and respect of, say, Japanese. But even in English,
the gentle and reverent phrasing of that line stands
But Luke begins again at the most private, then transcends
all private life, taking us back up to Heaven’s
heights: “in your womb,” “will be
born” – so intimate; then “name
him” for the public – then the “throne
of David, his father,” “rule over Jacob,”
“his kingdom… forever.”
In the story of Christmas itself – the Gospel
we read at midnight – Luke narrows in from the
whole Roman Empire – “the whole world”!
– to a manger and swaddling clothes. But then
– out again to the hills (Remember the description
of the coming Messiah: “the desire of the everlasting
hills”?) – and from there to the “highest”
heaven and the angel choirs.
A Melody of Color, a Palette of Sound
Luke plays. He plays with light; he plays with words.
Not like poker or Monopoly. He plays a symphony, a
concerto, a great improvisation of jazz. He gives
us the colors and the music of Christmas. (It’s
even true, isn’t it? Christmas “sounds
like” passages from Luke’s Gospel!)
But all the color and all the musical harmony and
even the unresolved, as-yet dis-harmony – they
are from Luke, right? Almost all, anyhow; we do get
a lot of unaccustomed color and swaying Asian rhythms
from Matthew’s Three Kings, don’t we?
How fitting it is to see here the same kind of oblique
light that animates the stories of the Prodigal and
of the woman they brought before Jesus. How appropriately
we leave aside clear, well demarcated legal notions
of justice and procedure. They’d be out of place
in the Christmas story.
Christmas is the antithesis of such an approach to
righteousness. We need Luke’s oblique light
and nuanced notions. It’s already hard enough
to try to make sense out of a God who sets divinity
aside to empty himself and come in human form. Luke’s
peremptory imperial tax and Bethlehem’s inhospitable
hostelry and beastly manger – we need those
images to understand what God is really doing.
God, with infinite generosity and unquenchable love,
sets aside the clear logic of justice on Christmas
night and shines his divine light into places where
light has never been. In that divine light things
before unknown come to pass – in Bethlehem,
in Jerusalem and Judea, and unto the ends of the earth.
If we don’t catch sight, for at least a moment,
of poor, pregnant Mary bouncing along the ways of
Judea on a donkey; if we don’t suddenly smell
a whiff of oxen, sheep and donkeys grazing and sleeping
nearby; if we don’t recall how lowly the scruffy
night-guard shepherds were in the pecking order of
ancient Israel – if none of that happens, it’ll
be hard to appreciate what God is doing for us Christmas
But Luke Doesn’t Say….
There is one thing we add that Luke does not say.
I’m sure it never occurred to him. But it helps
us understand Christmas and how such a thing comes
Yes, weather historians tell us that it was a particularly
cool time in the Near East, back around the year of
Christ’s birth. But that’s only a matter
of a few degrees.
Yet, so, so often, when we depict the manger scene
of Bethlehem, we put snow in the picture.
Snow – especially to a child, but also to child-like
eyes in a wise old head – often seems to be
a kind of blessing, a caress that heaven gives to
earth as it falls. And snow lying in peace on the
soil of earth seems a sabbath out of season, an extra,
unexpected reminder that all does not come merely
by human willing. Snow is Nature’s Season of
Advent. For snow brings waiting into our lives.
Maybe that’s why we so oddly depict the angels
of God with their message of hope and love hovering
over a very un-Bethlehemlike snowscape. Maybe it’s
our way of showing our faith in the great Gift their
It Is God’s Act; We Wait
We know that what they are announcing is sheer Gift;
we know we could not bring it about ourselves. We
know we can only wait in expectation of a radically
new reality breaking into our world.
All we can do is wait – wait and be ready.
We can’t go get Christ if he seems to be too
late for our expectation. We can’t force him
to come at our preferred time.
Christ will only come like the snow,
a Blessing from Heaven.
Christmas proclaims that Christ has
and that he will come again.
May God fill your heart and life with that Blessing!
Have a very joyful Christmas!