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Christmas Day

19 December 2019

Isaiah 62.6-end; Psalm 97; Titus 3.4-7; Luke 2.1-20

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

The Nativity of Christ (Greek icon)

The Nativity of Christ (Greek icon)

AS ST GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS told his congregation, “This is the solemnity we are celebrating today: the arrival of God among us, so that we might go to God — or, more precisely, might return to God.” Our lections cast light on both of these movements: on God’s arrival in this fallen world, and on the way in which his coming enables us to share his life, in time and for eternity.

The opening verses of our first reading tell of the suffering and injustice of the world that Christ has come to save. Isaiah gives us the poignant image of sentinels posted on the walls of a desolate Jerusalem, crying out to the Lord. They “take no rest” so that God will “have no rest” until he “establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth”. In the persistence of their cries, the sentinels remind God of his vows to Israel. He has promised her that he will “not again give your grain to be food for your enemies and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have laboured”.

It is a sobering start to our Christmas lections. As Fleming Rutledge observes, however, “the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ will forever elude us if we are unable to take an inventory of the gravity of the human condition.” What makes the story of Christmas more than a consoling, sentimental tale is precisely that the Christ-child is immersed in the “gravity” of our situation.

Godong/AlamyChristmas crib: the Nativity

Luke begins his account of that birth by telling us that “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” As Justo González explains, the census was “an inventory of all the wealth of a region — its people, its animals, and its crops — so that the government would be able to tax people to the maximum. A census usually announced greater poverty and exploitation” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke). In the life of the Holy Family, we find an echo of the oppression and expropriation experienced by Isaiah’s contemporaries.

In Christ, God comes into this world of suffering and sin to call it back to its true home in him. Paul declares to Titus that “the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared.” As González explains, the title “Saviour” (soter) was employed in the Septuagint to refer both to God and to those whom God sends to liberate Israel. “In the Hebrew Scriptures, the function of such liberators is neither purely religious nor purely political.” Indeed, the distinction between “religious” and “political” liberation is alien to the Bible. Our “return to God” involves both the transformation of each individual believer, and of the social and material order.

Isaiah offers us a corporate image of redemption: the “highway” is to be prepared for God’s exiled people to return home to a restored Jerusalem. The language of the text alternates between the theme of the Lord’s “resolve” and the “restoration” of his holy city. The good news is both that God has “not forsaken” his people, and that deliverance is visible within human history.

Our epistle complements this with its focus on personal transformation in Christ; on the “rebirth and renewal” which the Holy Spirit effects in our hearts by the grace of baptism. St Thomas Aquinas explains that baptismal regeneration restores and perfects our humanity. “This new nature, however, is acquired by a rebirth, regeneration. Yet this nature is given in such a way as to become ours, and thus it is superadded; for we participate in the divine nature without ceasing to be mortal.” Just as Christ’s incarnation has drawn together the earthly and the heavenly, so our earthly nature is transformed, but not erased, by his redeeming work.

Our eternal destiny in Christ involves both fellowship and worship. As Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, this destiny is prefigured by the presence of the angels who bring good tidings to the shepherds; for their praises both “reflect the heavenly glory of the Son of Man” and also “make visible the social character of the Kingdom of Heaven, into which the cosmos is to be transformed” (The Glory of the Lord). In Christ, God has indeed “arrived” in the full gravity of our condition, so that we and all creation may find our home in him.

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