Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4 (5-12); John 1.1-14
Eternal God, who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of your one true light: bring us, who have known the revelation of that light on earth, to see the radiance of your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you have given us your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
JOSEPH had brought the donkey carrying Mary to a halt outside the optician’s shop window. They hovered modestly on the edge of the small crowd that was gathering to listen to a choir on the cathedral green. Just in front of them, some volunteers with urns and paper cups were advertising “Tea4Free”. Round the corner, on the High Street, a shepherd strode purposefully past a mobile-phone shop, while two shepherdesses chatted with children outside a restaurant.
The night was lit up with coloured lights strung across the street and with the glowing wristbands that were clearly a popular line at an outdoor stall in the marketplace. Several dogs sported luminescent collars. The setting was Ely, where community life and commerce had come together for the annual switching on of Christmas lights on the last Friday of November.
As story, this moving tableau maps itself easily on to the description of Jesus’s birth provided by Luke (2.1-20). And yet something about it seems to point in the direction of the announcement that introduces the Gospel of John (1.1-14). That is not to domesticate the mystery of the incarnation — rather it is to wonder at the occasional and surprising ability of the ordinary and everyday to bear witness to that mystery.
Under the cheery exterior of happy people congregating round the small city-centre lay a certain tension, as if something was about to happen.
Of course, in a purely practical sense, developments were imminent: Mary and Joseph were clearly waiting for their cue to move to a more centrally visible position, and the shepherds were arranging themselves near by, in order to appear at the angelic summons, or at least as the choir began “Hark the herald angels sing”.
That does not account, however, for the odd feeling that some much more astonishing disruption was coming. It was as if, without the world’s realising it, the carefully rehearsed “Living Nativity” might let in a greater power, and the coloured lights that look so tawdry after Christmas admit a greater and truer light.
In the background, the Word made flesh might have been putting itself into the hands of bystanders, who gratefully accepted cups of tea from the community-church volunteers, and perhaps progressed from casual thanks to a deeper discussion of what was happening around them.
John starts at the beginning, by consciously quoting Genesis 1.1. In fact, he starts before that, since by the time that the beginning began, the Word was already with God, and played a part in bringing every other part of the created world into being (John 1.1-2).
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins at the end — or almost at the end, “in these last days” (Hebrews 1.1-2) — in order to explain to his audience the great mystery and privilege of their salvation through the priestly intervention of the Son of God in human affairs.
The letter goes on to show how exceptional this is; for Jesus, the great high priest, does an entirely new thing. He abolishes sacrifice in sacrificing himself, and he invites all who place their faith in his redeeming work to enter into a new covenant with God.
In its spine-tingling introductory verses, however, it concentrates on the sheer majesty of the Son of God, who is greater than the prophets, and greater even than the angels. The writer does not attempt novelty in this verbal portrait. He turns to the heritage of the psalms, and chooses verses that attribute powers to God in a world that had not yet heard of Christ — to the Christ who has now not only entered the world, but also saved it. He is ruler, judge, creator, and saviour, and he is unchanging (Hebrews 1.8-12).
The vision of Hebrews is a city, built by God, that holds the destiny of God’s faithful people, and the letter understands the true home of the Christian to be in heaven (Hebrews 11.10, 13.14). It would, nevertheless, be impossible to imagine that city without the earthly Jerusalem that was loved and lamented over by the prophets, and more than once destroyed by invaders, and rebuilt by returning exiles.
Isaiah looks forward to Jerusalem’s restoration when the Lord returns (Isaiah 52.7-10), leading his people out of exile and reuniting the nation with the remnant that remained. Does he end there? His hope for Jerusalem is that it will be a timeless sanctuary, and a place where nations will come to seek the holiness of God (Isaiah 60-62).
Christmas calls us to welcome the Son of God into our imperfect cities, towns, and villages, with joy, and to pray with equal insistence for the peace of Jerusalem and for the cities whose centuries of Christian witness are now imperilled by war.