“Tonight God comes forth in a gush of water and blood for us. The Infant cry of Christmas reminds us that God is real – that our salvation is accomplished by One of us, the Christ who is born” (Child in Winter, Thomas Hoffman, p97). God became human, the Word made flesh; the Word was with God and that God has made his dwelling among us. Jesus was born, we are told, in the days of Caesar Augustus, “while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” History becomes the decisive place in which God manifests himself. On the first Christmas, God joined us in a most remarkable way. He is Emmanuel, God with us in the fragile and sometimes messy fullness of our humanity. Among us, with us, in us: the flesh that God took is our human flesh; in some genuine sense it is my flesh, it is your flesh, it is the flesh of every human being born – and dying – in this world. If the Word of God indeed became human and took on our condition, then it was for the good of all, out of enduring love for a universal human community.
At Christmas the crib eclipses the cross, even if the cross does not fully disappear. The parallelism with the cross in John’s Gospel can be seen clearly in the opening quotation: “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn.19:34). In taking on our humanity, God, through Jesus, experienced both the joy and the sorrow of human life. The baby at Bethlehem shows just how far the divine love would go in making God visible and vulnerable for us and to us.
Since the stories of the birth of Jesus were written down many years after he had been crucified and had risen from the dead, they are coloured by what his death and resurrection mean. The message of the incarnation does not begin on Christmas morning and end on Good Friday. The Christ event – the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is one act of God. Christianity finds its deepest meaning in its deepest mystery: the Resurrection. The Christian way always points beyond suffering and into new life. The third Preface at the Mass for Christmas expresses it well: “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendour: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honour but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.”
What strikes me about the great mystery of the incarnation is the gentleness, the silence, the humility of his coming among us. “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12).
Pope Benedict XVI has written incisively about the simplicity of the announcement of the angel of the Lord:
“Nothing miraculous, nothing extraordinary, nothing magnificent is given to the shepherds as a sign. All they will see is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, one who, like all children, needs a mother’s care; a child born in a stable, who therefore lies not in a cradle but in a manger. God’s sign is the child in need of help and in poverty. Only in their hearts will the shepherds be able to see that this child fulfils the promise of the prophet Isaiah…: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulders.’ Exactly the same sign has been given to us. We too are invited by the angel of God, through the message of the Gospel, to set out in our hearts to see the child lying in the manger. God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the child. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a child – defenceless and in need of our help” (Christmas Homily, 24th December 2006).
Christmas is a call to trust in the God who comes to us in this way. Our God is a God of trust – a God of trust is a God of risk. God risks asking the young woman Mary in Nazareth; God entrusts his plan to her answer. Joseph too was willing to cooperate with the divine plan, though he in no way knew its contours or deepest purpose. Like Mary at the Annunciation, whom we admire for her response to God’s call and mission, he trusted and let himself be led. God entrusts his Son to the vulnerability of the lives of this young couple. Because Mary and Joseph trust in the goodness of God, and in God’s providence, Christ now Nazareths in us and Bethlehems, too.
Jesus, at the end of his life, will entrust his word, his good news, his mission, his life, to the fallible and failing disciples whom he called. He knew of what they were made before they did themselves. Jesus takes risks with others. Put simply, he choose the twelve apostles – even though he knows they are not perfect. He entrusts the Church to them. Now he entrusts the Church to us. And the Lord entrusts us with his son – this night, this day. It was the people who walked in darkness that saw the great light. It was upon those who lived in the land of shadow that the light shone.
We live in a time of darkness and shadow. Homelessness in Ireland is increasing at the rate of 15 people per day, many of them children. Such a figure, however, does not convey the personal trauma that homelessness can bring. Today, it is surely not an impossible dream to hope that no person, particularly no child, in this country would be left homeless or go to bed hungry. I am thinking not only of those in hotel rooms, but also of our immigrants in detention centres and direct provision – every one of them precious to God (see Jonah 4:11).
Others have also experienced times of darkness and shadow: we think of those who live through war and famine, the migrants and the refugees. May the Lord open our eyes to see the image of God in every person, at every stage of their lives.
What is happening in our land and across the Western world is something that is real and significant; there is a darkness in the land and in our society, and a deep shadow over and within our Church, a shadow we have always acknowledged as a fact of human frailty. May we never doubt the light that God always is – and that we are too – as we wait and work with trust in God who comes to embrace us in the darkness of the journey with words of consolation and hope that we need. The Word is “the true light that enlightens everyone on coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9).
Emmanuel, you came to dwell among us as the source of true light. We see that light reflected in the lives of so many people. We see heroism and patience and understanding; we see honesty and unselfish service of others; we see genuine holiness and fidelity. There are countless unnamed people in the world, in government, in the church, in our estates, in our townlands and in our families among whom God’s Word continues to become flesh and to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14). Their lives testify that the reign of God has indeed taken hold. O Lord, may my life radiate with your light and be perceived by all who sit in darkness. May all of us, by our love, bring light and hope to all whose lives are troubled this Christmas.
- Bishop Dermot Farrell is Bishop of Ossory.