Christmas Eve reflections are available below.
CHRISTMAS EVE THURSDAY 24 DECEMBER
Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas Eve)
The Humility of the Manger
Michael Ramsey, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, said that a problem faced by the Church is that we have an old story to tell, this story of Christ’s Nativity, yet we have to tell it to a generation for whom any sense of the past is faint and becoming fainter. History is what happened the day before yesterday. And in a commonplace world, we have an uncommon story to tell.
Here is a birth like no other birth at all. For in this child in the manger is God, the creator of all things. this is the magnum mysterium, the great mystery of our carols, of our liturgy. For the event is as staggering as it is awe-inspiring. The child in the manger is the one who comes to be our judge, and while judgement does not sit easily with canned Christmas carols in supermarkets, it is an inescapable dimension of the birth some two thousand years ago in the city of David.
This is the destination and the outcome of the Collect we prayed on Advent Sunday. Here, on this night / day, “now in the time of this mortal life,” is the time when God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in “great humility.” It is the end of history, and the beginning of our history. And we are to remember that will end for us on the last day “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.”
Such a tension between the now and the not yet undergirds most human experience. It is a way of putting into proper human context the horrors and depredations of which mankind is capable. And has an even greater resonance as this past year of disease and dislocation comes to a close. It is the ever-present paradox between good and evil, in which evil may be perceived to triumph in the present, but there is judgement yet to come and the guarantee is this final Word of God made flesh.
The nature of that first coming in great humility is a remarkable reversal of how God’s Messiah was expected to come: a conquering hero with his warrior hosts before him. Rather, he comes weak, vulnerable, fragile as a helpless child. The cave at Bethlehem is the place where he is born, not some gold-encrusted palace. Christ came not “to create golden temples but golden hearts.” This child who is laid in the rough-hewn wood of the manger is the one who is to die on the wood of the Cross.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that human existence is contingent and uncertain. That we are mortal. That the hubris of humankind that elevates us to be little gods in our self-absorbed kingdoms is all too fallible and insubstantial. Perhaps the pandemic might offer the opportunity to recalibrate what lies at the heart of our being.
In the crib at Bethlehem, we see the “magnitude of meekness” of which the poet Christopher Smart speaks, the “great humility” of God made man, of omnipotent power made meek and mild in a little child. In that child we see self-offering and self-giving love, righteousness, justice and peace. Such values lie at the very heart of any civilised and humane society. They are embedded within the soul of humanity, within the souls of men and women everywhere. They are values that, while they may be ignored and rejected, can never wholly be eradicated because they are an integral part of our very fibre as human beings. The pandemic has reminded us, in its terrible cruelty, of our human frailty, fragility and finiteness; that we are lost without God but we are also reminded at this altar of the ever-present hope and promise that with God nothing is impossible. That the glory of God is a human being fully alive.
Christ Church, Hampstead 2020