Christmas Eve 2017
23.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Readings: Isaiah 9. 2-7; John 1. 1-14
Japan; Lebanon; Korea; Rumania; Latin America; Africa; Iraq; Slovakia. Whilst on a short post-Christmas break in Brussels at the start of 2017, I discovered that Christian communities living in the Belgian capital from all these, and other, countries and continents had found their place in the Cathedral there. Both sides of the nave of this massive Gothic building were crammed with nativity scenes from across the world, each one offering an insight into how Christians from around the globe have absorbed into their native cultures the Good News that we celebrate tonight. Here was a representation of the Holy Family delicately crafted out of mulberry paper; there was a crib fashioned out of a corn-husk; in that corner was a stable with a grass roof, its sides open to the warmth of an African sun. The world under one roof, glorious in its diversity, yet gathered as one around the Christ-child. As I moved around the cathedral I reflected that those nativity scenes in the spiritual heart of Brussels might, in their silent dignity, have something deeply significant to teach us. In that holy space could be glimpsed a paradox: the beauty of unity held creatively in place by the tension of diversity.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, said God through the prophet Isaiah six centuries before the birth of Jesus. We begin to understand the truth of this utterance when we set alongside each other the various passages of scripture we hear at Christmas. There is the familiar story of the birth of a child in Bethlehem – in the historically particular setting of first century Palestine, and with the details St Matthew and St Luke give us of Mary and Joseph, angels and stables, shepherds and wise men that. But there is also the cosmic magnificence of the prologue to St John’s Gospel that we have just heard: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. St John draws us back, beyond and before Bethlehem in Judea, beyond and before time, to the pre-dawn of creation itself. St John draws us into the very heart of God, a heart that beats intensely with light and abundant life. St John helps us to understand that it is God’s deepest longing that all human beings should share in this abundant life through knowing the light which nourishes it; that it is God’s deepest longing that his eternity and our time, ruptured because of human failing, should be reconciled. This divine dilemma finally finds its solution in the incarnation. As St John writes, the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The mystery of this incarnation is another paradox summed up beautifully by a seventeenth century poet, Richard Crashaw, who addresses the child of Bethlehem like this:
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
So the divine becomes human; the one through whom all things were created becomes part of creation. A fourth century bishop, Athanasius, explains it in this way: ‘Existing in a human body, to which he himself gives life, (the Word) is still the source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it’. This is how the very particular historical details of the birth of Jesus that we are familiar with through St Matthew and St Luke can be reconciled with the sweeping canvas of St John’s prologue. The Word becomes flesh in Bethlehem but not only in Bethlehem. The Word becomes flesh in all places and for all time and for all people, because the Word originates in God’s eternity. In the face of this mystery we can only fall back once more on the words of Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
At this service two years ago I said this: ‘The world has often seemed a very dark place this year. Human indifference, neglect, and cruelty have abounded.’ Two more years have added to the weight of that indifference, neglect, and cruelty. The darkness seems no less visible. But tonight we give thanks to God for that shaft of hope-bringing light glimpsed in Brussels Cathedral: the light of human unity that rejoices in, embraces, but ultimately transcends its diversity; the light of a common faith that is shared across cultures; the light of a saviour who was born both in time in a particular place, and for all time in every place.
To this incarnate saviour, our risen and ascended Lord, be all honour and glory, dominion and praise, this Christmas and to the ages of ages. Amen.