(Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-6; St. John 1:1-18)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in the course of our Advent preparation Mother Church bade us pray: ‘Lord, as we walk amid passing things, teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.’
In accordance with that prayer, I would like to bring to your mind this Christmas morning a very popular character of great importance to our Christmas celebrations: Father Christmas. Even though there will be little attention given in the media and public celebrations to the Person of the Child Whose coming is so blatantly exploited in this season, Father Christmas is, on the other hand, to be seen everywhere, feted and surrounded by wondering children, always being questioned about the gifts he is bringing … will his sack be big enough to hold, and his reindeer strong enough to carry, them all? How the media love to plug Father Christmas and his gifts for the financial advantages such a presentation of Christmas rejoicing brings for their sponsors, and perhaps, in our present times, also for a more charitable purpose of bringing some traditional, easily-appreciated joy, to many suffering under lockdowns from loneliness and tedium!
Practicing Catholics and Christians rightly reject such a distortion of Christmas. And yet, many of them -- while rejecting the commercial Father Christmas -- tend themselves to overlook the real Father-of-Christmas, that is, the heavenly Father of Jesus, and in so doing concoct another distortion of their own, smothering Christmas with excessive sentimentality, centred exclusively on the birth of the child and the joy of his mother. You might have noticed that I have not emphasized ‘the child or his mother’, because those Catholics and Christians I have in mind relate to Jesus’ birth in much as they would any to other mother and baby scenario, and seem to have no doubt that their emotional extravaganza is a fitting, contemporary, expression of that spirit of devotion which drove the Three Kings across desert wastes; indeed, of that spirit of holiness which caused the angels from heaven to burst forth into joyful chorus and filled the hearts and minds of Mary and Joseph with wonderment and joy.
Now, whilst that extravaganza might possibly be considered acceptable piety for many who are preoccupied with the cares and distractions of the world around them, it is certainly not satisfactory for those disciples of Jesus who have the desire to find a deeper spiritual appreciation of the wonder and the beauty of this joyful season.
Father Christmas …. Father Christmas … I repeat the name, the title, the sobriquet, because I am sure the world will not fail to remind you of it no matter how many Christmas seasons may lie before you, and I want to draw some help for you NOW from that very worldly fact, that will, indeed, cause you to love more truly the things of heaven, by impressing upon your Catholic mind and Christian sensitivity the real, indeed the vital, connection between Father and Christmas.
As in the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, so still today -- for God’s chosen ones -- the Spirit of God can be appreciated hovering over the world to which He originally gave being and which is still recognizable as His creation for us believers, a creation ever ‘eager’ to bear witness to its Creator and Inspiration, despite the fact that a majority of its inhabitants in our modern Western part of the world are no longer willing or able to recognize it as such, and consequently find themselves unable to admire and learn from a wondrous beauty they still feel, somehow, drawn to celebrate this season.
What is the essential character of Christmas?
Those sentimental Catholics and Christians to whom I earlier referred would say that the beauty of Christmas, its ‘pulling-power’ so to speak, is centred on the beauty and innocence of the Child, which disarms all who are aware of sin in themselves and in the world around. However, if we know ourselves well enough, we must admit that many other pictures of tranquil beauty and unstained innocence -- be they pastoral scenes, or even perhaps pictures of wide-eyed puppies or playful kittens -- can stir up in us fleeting emotions of a somewhat similar nature. The essence of Christmas must therefore lie deeper, indeed it must be something other, than such openly emotional, short-lived, worldly, sentiments.
We are told, by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, of some who came in a spirit of joy and wonder to see the new-born Child:
The wise men set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the Child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When the angels had left and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this Child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
However, the Wise Men and the shepherds, on leaving that scene of innocent and yet solemn beauty, seem to have returned to their former lives, for they are not to be encountered again in our Gospel story. They admired, wondered at, the fact of Christ’s advent but did not realize its full significance, were not able to appreciate its depth of meaning and purpose. We have, therefore, to find somehow a way that will lead us deeper into the beauty and peace of that manger scene, towards the eternal wisdom and divine truth hidden in the silent embrace of the as yet speechless Child and His adoring mother.
I remember when I was training to become a classical singer that those audiences who burst out into immediate applause as soon as a musical item came to an end were not appreciated half so much as others audiences who – at the end of a performance -- were seemingly beauty-bound by a gossamer web of silence, and only reluctantly broke that spell by giving place to applause which was felt, at that moment, to be an almost unworthy sign of appreciation. On such occasions, the audience were more than listeners, they had become fellow travellers, sharing with the artist in a beautiful musical experience.
Now let us turn to St. Luke’s observation of Mary and Joseph at the Birth of the Lord:
Mary treasured all these words (that is, all that had happened) and pondered them in her heart.
I suggest, and I have no doubt that you will agree, that Mary’s attitude of awe-inspired reverence and total loving-commitment penetrates most surely and deeply to the essential significance of the Christmas mystery, while it most truly and fully rejoices the heart of the Father in heaven.
Moreover, we find that same attitude to the Incarnation of God’s Son in the Gospel of John, who, as you will remember, took Mary to his home in obedience to the dying words of Jesus. For John, when speaking of the Birth of the Messiah paints no emotionally moving picture, but simply says:
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (3:16)
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father. (1:14)
On both occasions, however, notice that he brings the Father into prominence; and from that basis goes on to develop his teaching:
In this is love … that (God) loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins … (yes, God) sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)
Dear People of God, the wonder of Christmas is indeed found in the Child but not if we see the Child merely as a child of disarming beauty and innocence. Such a child can most certainly stir us emotionally but has neither Personal character nor prospective teaching to which we can relate or respond. Christmas is only to be appreciated aright when He, the Child, is seen as the One Who is potentially the fullest possible manifestation, and Who, indeed, is already a sublimely beautiful expression, of the Father’s love for us; He is the absolutely unique One through Whom the Father’s love is preparing to touch, change, and save, all of us.
If we recognize the Child as the Father’s Gift, then we will be ever on the alert for the Good News the Child brings, we will watch Him grow up, desiring to know from Him ever more of the Father’s love, and how we can learn to embrace and respond to that love in and with Him, the only-begotten and well-beloved Son. All in the spirit of those words spoken with regard to John the Baptist:
“What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with Him.
Looking exclusively and emotionally on the child makes Christmas into an occasion when we can pour out our feelings and affections upon Him and for His mother. However, when -- like all children He grows up -- then, in adult situations, and needing at times to speak hard words and warn of dire punishment, He will, of necessity, lose much of that which so charmed us in His Nativity, with the result that the Gospel’s most treasured message will be for us but the recollection of His past Infancy, and the Christmas season a time for us to re-savour it as much and for as long as we possibly can before the memory inevitably fades as we have to face up to the more bleak reality of His subsequent life and death.
On the other hand, seeing the Child as the expression of the Father’s supreme and astounding love leads us to forget ourselves in immediate and heartfelt gratitude to the Father; whereupon, turning to the Child with gratitude and joy, we then experience a deep longing for and anticipation of His future manhood that will reveal to us more of the deep, mysterious depths of the Father’s ‘incredible’ love for us, the hidden wonders of the Child’s Personality and Being, and the unimaginable destiny God has in store for us.
The greatest moments of the Christian life are not times in which we do something for God or get something for ourselves, rather are they moments when, first and foremost, we humbly receive, before subsequently trying gratefully and patiently to appreciate, God’s marvellous gifts and inconceivable goodness. Ultimately, no human being could ever have found God; we have only come to truly know and experience Him because He has graciously revealed Himself to us, and when we, with spiritual peace of mind and humility of heart, have been able to welcome and embrace Him. Consequently, since a supremely significant step in God’s self-revelation to mankind is made here in the Incarnation, this Christmas is a time, an occasion, to be lived in company with, and in imitation of, Mary.
God originally created us out of love; in Adam we sinned, becoming subject to Satan, sin and death, and allowing chaos and disruption to enter the beautiful garden that had been entrusted to our care: thereby we involved the whole of God’s ‘good’ creation in the consequences of our own fall and failing. Now the great mystery of Christmas is that God -- having originally loved us enough to create us -- showed us, even after such a betrayal in the Garden, yet greater love by sending His only-begotten and most-beloved Son as One-like-us-with-us to redeem us.
And that, that wondrous and mysteriously overflowing love, is the ‘pulling-power’ of Christmas today, for, it is still being offered us anew, still at work, in this Christian year of celebration 2020! For those who are mature enough to appreciate Mother Church’s yearly celebration of the Child’s coming, Christmas recalls the Father’s love to our minds and offers us grace to open up our hearts to it and Him anew; the liturgical year in its subsequent progress will invite and enable us to grow with the Son-made-flesh in that reverence and love, and to respond to it by the power of His Spirit to be poured out upon us!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Christmas is, supremely, a time for gratitude to the Father of Jesus -- the real Father Christmas -- and of hope in the Child … what indeed will this Child of such Love become, what will He show us, what will He teach us, where will He lead us???
Father Christmas … Heavenly Father of Christmas, thank You for the Infant Jesus! Help me to follow every stage of His life and teaching that I might learn from Him how to know and love You, because Jesus said that that was the purpose of His coming: He had come to make Your name known! Father, You give us Jesus, You offer Him anew to us this Christmas … give us, likewise, to Jesus, for He Himself again said that none can draw near to Him unless You, Father, send them, give them, to Him. Father, give me to Jesus this Christmas, that in Jesus, by the Spirit of Jesus, I might become like Him a true child of Yours!