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1st Sunday of Christmas

17 December 2020

Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Psalm 148 [or 148.7-end]; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21


ONE sending begets another. Angels are sent to some shepherds to deliver world-changing news. Then the shepherds send themselves off to Bethlehem. There is not a trace of scepticism in their response to the angelic news — not even a polite inquiry about “how?”, such as Mary’s response to Gabriel in the previous chapter (Luke 1.34). It is characteristic of Luke to balance his story with people’s reactions to it: when the shepherds spread the news, the reaction is general amazement. It is as if Luke, more than the other Evangelists, is anticipating our responses and indicating the proper forms that they should take.

One commentator on Galatians calls 4.3-5 the “theological center of the whole epistle”; and the idea it contains — of God’s “sending” — the “center of the center”. It is true that the Sundays in Advent have prepared us for an act of sending. The patriarchs, prophets, and, above all, John the Baptist, were all sent by God to fulfil his purposes. Galatians 4.4 is as close as Paul comes to stating that the Son pre-existed his human birth. He may have believed that, but what he chooses to share with us is the other side of Christ’s identity — that he was “born of a woman”. The phrase is a way of saying “human”, or “mortal”, as Job uses it (14.1). Apparently, the first Christians had no particular difficulty accepting the divinity of Christ; but they may have struggled to make sense of his humanity.

The problem for us in a sceptical age is the other way round. In the novel Robert Elsmere by Mrs Humphry Ward, an idealistic clergyman becomes tainted by dangerous, new-fangled European teachings on the historical nature of Christian dogma. Eventually, he loses his faith completely. While the agonising process of disillusionment is working out in him, his sermons become more and more emphatic about the human suffering and human goodness of the man Jesus. It is hard to imagine such a plot seizing the public imagination today; but back in 1888 it was a red-hot topic for discussion.

What would Robert Elsmere have made of Paul’s “born of a woman”? He would have emphasised it as a truth that people could still hold on to, despite the seeming impossibility of a virginal conception. I think that he would also have wanted to emphasise the reactions of Mary in this chapter of Luke. Twice we are told how she responded to other people’s reactions to her extraordinary son. And she alone, of all the people who have ever lived, knew — rather than believed — that his virginal conception was historical fact.

In verse 19, Luke says that she “treasured all these words”. A little later on, after the finding in the temple (2.51), she “treasured all these things in her heart”. “Words” and “things” are translations of the same term in Greek; “treasured”, on the other hand, translates two slightly different words as if they were the same. I don’t know why the translators chose to do this but, being a translator myself, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We need to take note of Mary’s human and motherly response to what people say and do concerning her son. She treasures — or perhaps “cherishes” — their reactions.

It is hard to read the Isaiah passage without thinking of Mary’s response to God and, above all, her Magnificat. That tends to divert us from the question who “I” is, historically speaking. Prophets more often speak God’s words, not their own. The language is ecstatic; the vision is timeless. The comparison to the fertile earth and the blossoming garden tells us that both righteousness and praise are, in God’s eyes, natural phenomena (61.11). At the heart of the prophecy is Zion’s restoration. For Christians, it also reflects God’s work of restoration in themselves: a rebuilding of the human individual broken by sin, and its remaking in the image of the Christ-child.

Looking back to Galatians, through the lenses of Luke and Isaiah, it’s now clear that the epistle has a centre to its “center of a center” — “you are no longer a slave but a child.” When we think that our happiest memories of Christmas, whether they represent dreams or reality, cluster around the time of our childhood, we see that to be a child of God, at Christmas, is the most special thing of all.

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