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Christmas Day

21 December 2018

Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20


Joseph and Mary and the enrolment for the census for taxation, in a panel from a mosaic in the 11th-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Chora, in modern Turkey. The mosaics were endowed between 1315 and 1321 by the powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites (Kariye Museum, Istanbul)

Joseph and Mary and the enrolment for the census for taxation, in a panel from a mosaic in the 11th-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Chora, in mo...

THE story of Christmas is one of grace entering and fulfilling the created order. Nature, as Henri de Lubac observes, is not self-contained: it is inherently open to its creator, and requires his grace to be made complete (The Mystery of the Supernatural).

The birth of any child is a matter of mystery and wonder, as a mother brings forth a new life, knit together in her womb, with the potential for consciousness and agency, delight and love. Perhaps more than anywhere else, we see here the limitations of scientific reductionism; the implausibility of the claim that every aspect of nature can be captured by the concepts of science. Nature, if we are to begin to articulate its full glory, demands a deeper — though complementary — description.

The incarnation reveals the true dignity and calling of the natural world. As Paula Gooder explains, the story of creation involves God’s making “the heavens” alongside “the earth” so that he has a home that is close to his creatures (Heaven). In Christ, God comes to share our life so that we can share in his. What has begun in the manger in Bethlehem will be completed when a new heaven and a new earth are made, and God dwells for ever among his creatures (Revelation 21).

The glory of creation has been obscured by the ruin of the fall. While the story of Christmas is full of light, it is told against a backdrop of occupation and oppression. Our Gospel reading begins with the Emperor Augustus’s decree that “all the world” should be registered. It is a decree enforced by military might, and one whose purpose is the more efficient exacting of tribute from occupied peoples. The Blessed Virgin Mary is therefore forced to travel, with Joseph, in the final weeks of her pregnancy, and to give birth without adequate shelter and lodgings.

This is a prefigurement of Holy Week, when the soldiers of the Roman Empire will once again determine Jesus’s movements. As God in Christ is here “handed over” to the care of Mary and Joseph, but also to the powers of empire, so he will be “handed over” more fully to those powers at his arrest in Gethsemane.

Like Isaiah’s initial readers, the people of Jesus’s day are “walking in darkness”, because of individual sin, a failure of religious leadership, and military occupation. In this “land of deep darkness”, a “great light” has now dawned: a light that will “break the rod” of those who oppress them. Isaiah’s promise is one of liberation from the occupying armies (who are the oppressors): a vision of peace, where “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Our epistle describes the manner in which this liberation dawns in individual human hearts and lives. The grace that has appeared this Christmas night enables us to be freed from “impiety and worldly passions”, and to live “lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly”. To the world, this seems paradoxical: all too often, we envisage freedom as the abandonment of self-control and the indulgence of “worldly passions”.

In our own power, we are constantly frustrated in the journey towards the goodness and beauty for which we were created. As St John the Monk explains, Christ comes to free us from this captivity: “Through his swaddling clothes he looses the bands of sin. And through becoming a child he heals Eve’s pangs in travail. Therefore let all creation sing and dance for joy, for Christ has come to restore it and to save our souls!”

The words of the angelic host remind us that there is a corporate as well as an individual aspect to this liberation from sin: “Peace on earth among those whom he favours”. As they hear the angelic chorus, the shepherds “continue the theme of Luke’s story, that all those involved in Jesus’ birth are ordinary men and women, far removed from circles of religious or political power” (Judith Lieu, Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).

The appearance of the angels tells of a cosmic reconciliation — the new relationship that Christ has wrought between heaven and earth. In the words of St Gregory the Great, “Since we have now acknowledged our King, the angels receive us as fellow citizens.”

In our worship, on this day above all days, we join with them in songs of jubilation.

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