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Christmas Day

17 December 2021

Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]

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HAVING written this column about the lections for a year now, I am aware that people read it for different reasons. Clergy looking for sermon material are not the whole picture, but they deserve sympathy; for at Christmas preachers can feel most frustrated. At the moment when we celebrate the incarnation, the right time to explore the fullness of incarnational theology never comes. It always loses out to the family-friendly, simple, and, above all, short homily. There are a meal to be prepared and presents to be opened. We cannot afford to linger. Those short homilies, though valuable, do not always reach into the corners of the soul in the way that the incarnation suggests that they should.

Luke 2 is the first Bible reading that I ever remember. I must have been seven, and my older sister was reading it at a school carol service in St Mary’s, Great Baddow. I expect lots of people have similar memories of that Gospel. Chapter two of the letter to Titus, in contrast, is probably top of very few people’s list of favourite Christmas readings. But, over the years, it has become one of mine.

The highlight in this Christmas Day feast for what Augustine called “the ears of the heart” is that glorious moment, “the grace of God has dawned upon the world.” Scholars may think that this translation is not sufficiently close to the Greek, but I believe that it best expresses the power of the text. It comes from a Bible version that has fallen out of fashion — the New English Bible (now the Revised English Bible) — and that is how I always hear the words, regardless of what is read or printed out for Christmas Day. If we pay attention only to the NRSV and the NIV, both of which use a rather dull verb (the grace of God has “appeared”), we will miss the triumphant tone of the good news.

So we can declare that the grace of God has “dawned upon the world”. The Greek verb is vivid: it needs the English to be vivid, too. It is the same verb as Zechariah used in his Benedictus (Luke 1.79). But we know it better through its associated noun: “epiphany”. Perhaps “the grace of God has been made manifest” is a fair compromise: that ties in with verse 13 of the Titus reading, where the writer refers to the “manifestation of the grace of God”. There it is again — the word “epiphany”.

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On Christmas morning, crisp and bright if we are lucky, we make our way to church, and the dayspring has only just arisen in the east. Then, in a harmony of soul and body, comes a dawn in our hearts to match the dawn in the physical world.

We hear the prophet’s proclamation that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Once, when God had walked with his people, they had a pillar of fire by night to light their way. That confirms that “walking in darkness” is a state of separation from God. Almost all of us, whether or not we call ourselves Christians, have some experience of such a state.

At Christmas, the veil between people of faith and those outside it is at its most translucent. Something about this light in the darkness — a bright beacon, at the time when natural light is most scarce — draws people in, regardless of mistakes that they have made, or what they think about the identity of the baby. Without being clear what God’s grace may be — or what a manifestation is, for that matter — people feel a deep and powerful pull.

What is this “manifestation of the grace of God”? To come back to the simplicity of the Christmas story, it is exactly what Luke makes plain in his Gospel. A baby wrapped up warm and sleeping is a familiar sight that all of us can understand. It is reinforced by the Christmas crib in church, and perhaps by the babies and children in church with us on Christmas morning. Before the eyes of our mind (Augustine again) lies the sleeping infant. We tread carefully, so as not to wake him. We watch him, in all the beauty of his vulnerability and need. And, with perfect clarity, the very grace of God dawns once more in our hearts and in our world.

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