HOMILY at the MASS of the DAWN of CHRISTMAS (C) 2018
I read in this week’s Church Times that a recent Twitter poll has revealed the most contentious Christmas Carols. Contentious, that is, on the grounds of theology or probability. And the winner is ….. (as they persist in saying) Away in a manger. The Carol that I too would have nominated. So Anon of Philadelphia, you have the prize. And the problem lies in one particular line of the carol. Referring to the Little Lord Jesus Anon of Philadelphia writes no crying he makes.
I was reminded the other day that I have expressed my wrath at this piece of balderdash before – it is seriously heretical, because it suggests to us that the baby in the manger is in fact not a real baby at all. It’s God pretending to be a baby.
The problem about such a notion is that first of all, God doesn’t pretend. At least, not in the sense of ‘pulling the wool over our eyes’ – that sort of pretending. Tricking us.
And though there can be a creative kind of pretending such as we see in art, literature and poetry for example, the other reason we cannot think of God pretending to be this baby is because if that had been so, then the birth, the living, the suffering and the dying of this baby would have made no difference whatsoever to the human race. If Jesus only seemed to be human then nothing has changed for humanity as a result of his being born.
Which is clearly not what Christian people believe. If it were, I cannot imagine any of us foregoing our beds last night to be here waiting expectantly for the moment of Midnight as we celebrated Mass together, and came to receive the divine and human life of Christ hidden, not in pretence but in the reality of sacrament, in the Bread and the Wine. Nor indeed would we bother on a day generally marked in our world these days by feasting and frolicking to forego our beds early and greet this same divinely human birth as his designated birthday dawns now.
No, we are here today to celebrate the birth that changes everything. The birth that happened in Bethlehem is a birth which is destined to go on happening until time is no more – a birth, a coming-into-fleshly-reality, of God and man together in a united harmony. That continuing birth happens through the life of Christ’s risen Body, his pilgrim people the Church. It happens as we celebrate together through Word and Sacrament. It happens in our life together of shared witness and mutual service. It happens as Christ is born in hearts that long for transformation in and through him, hearts that long to be freed from the age-long bondage of sin, and who know the power of Christ’s words your sins are forgiven.
For this to happen, God does not pretend to be human. God embraces our humanity and lives it out to its full potential without limit to God’s love in that action.
How may this be? Well, there we are back to the realm of poem and song, of carol and hymn. Poetry is so often our resort when it comes to speech about God and God’s ways, and not least at Christmas when we contemplate the greatest of all mysteries of how the Word of God active in creation is now a helpless infant in Mary’s arms, dependent upon her milk for the nourishment he needs, fragile in a cattle shed.
Talk of poetry brings us back to two other Carols which did quite badly in the Twitter poll. These were Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter and probably my absolute favourite, Charles Wesley’s Hark, the herald angels sing! Many objected to veiled in flesh the Godhead see in Hark the herald as suggestive of the Monophysite heresy – another ancient misunderstanding that somehow God was in the driving seat of Jesus who had no true human will. Let’s not worry too much about that one just now! Christina Rossetti’s masterpiece, however, comes in for a slating because there was about as much likelihood of frozen ground and snow falling at the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as there might be of pigs flying around the stable at the same time!
Christina Rossetti wrote In the bleak Midwinter in 1872 when she was in ill-health. Back in 1850, her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti had produced an extremely controversial painting of the Annunciation – actually, I think, one of the finest I know – Ecce Ancilla Domini. It seriously offended Victorian proprieties. Christina was the model for Mary – seen rising from her bed and confused at the message from the very beautifully seductive angel Gabriel. That, too, is another story for another time.
Christina’s carol, however, is a masterpiece because it translates the message of God’s incarnation in the birth of Jesus into the reality of the present. Earth stood hard as iron. Human heartslike the water changed into stone. And into this steps the God whom earth cannot contain. And what is the response to this generosity and magnanimity? What can I give him – give my heart. Give my heart.
Whether it is to the rather pedestrian music of Gustav Holst or the magnificent melodies of Harold Darke it is impossible, particularly those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, to be moved by Christina Rossetti’s carol – speaking as it does of the breaking of God into our cold and dark human world. To make possible the breaking of those awful spirals of human degradation, the age-long bondage of sin that prevents us from being truly and fully human.
Significantly, Christina Rossetti gave a great deal of her time and energy in different ways to the emancipation of women. She served in a way that was despised by other women of her class in a home of mercy to help thousands of women who had been forced into prostitution in the mid nineteenth century in London. And her poetry exposed some of the wicked abuses of women of her day.
Today we rejoice – not that everything has been achieved by the birth of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. But that an unstoppable transforming and transfiguring force has stepped into our world. God’s love and mercy has leapt down from heaven into the midwinter of our fallenness. What can we give him? Give our hearts. Give our hearts. And let the work begun in Bethlehem two thousand years ago advance each day until all is fulfilled.
I wish you the most joyful Christmas filled with God’s love and mercy for us all declared in his Son.