Adoration and Awe
(Gospel Reading for Midnight Mass Luke 2:1-14; for Mass During the Day John 1:1-18)
Introduction to Mass
The feast of Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ: the coming of God into the realm of human affairs in the form of a man. The Christmas story, as it's told in the gospels, describes the great joy experienced by those who witnessed Jesus' birth, because they recognised the Saviour and the dawning of our salvation. The gospel writers emphasise the adoration and awe which those witnesses felt in the presence of a unique, divine child. In doing so they also show how adoration is the basic attitude we should have in our relationship with God.
We begin Mass by acknowledging all the ways in which we've failed to give due reverence to God, and all the times when we've worshipped other things instead of God, and we ask him for his pardon and healing.
“In the bleak midwinter”
The way the gospel writers describe the birth of Jesus is to draw a very vivid contrast between the enormous significance of the event and the rather bleak circumstances that it takes place in.
At that very time King Herod - Herod the Great - was in the middle of building the second temple in the centre of Jerusalem. It was a gargantuan enterprise, and it was only ostensible being built for the purpose of giving honour to God.
Herod had his own ulterior, self-interested motives for building a new temple: trying to ingratiate himself with the general population, which was unhappy with some of the aspects of Herod's rule; and also as a lasting monument to himself. He wouldn't be the first king or emperor to try to immortalise himself with some colossal building project.
So in one way there wasn't much of the genuine presence of God in the whole concept. But at the same time as all that was going on, God was present and at work, in very different - far less exalted - circumstances, as the gospel writers testify.
On the outskirts of a rather insignificant town, in an outdoor building which was really only meant for keeping animals, the Word of God - as St John says - became flesh and dwelt among us. As I say, the writers of the gospels use the bleakness of the circumstances to underline the grandeur of what's actually taking place.
A divine child
As we all know, Jesus' birth in the stable in Bethlehem has been commemorated and represented in hundreds of pictures and works of art. And in many of the most famous paintings Mary and Joseph, and sometimes the shepherds and so on, are shown crowded around the manger with their faces lit up by the light shining out from the baby Jesus. It's a simple enough artistic device, which we would all recognise as illustrating the fact that this particular child is special and unique - a divine child, in fact, God incarnate.
It's also a device, I think, which faithfully reflects the intentions of the men who wrote the gospels, because they also try to convey the divine nature of the child Jesus, and - as a sign of that divine nature - the adoration and the awe which his presence gives rise to, among the people who gather around him.
Our resistance to God
In my opinion this attitude of awe in the face of the divine and the eternal is exactly the attitude towards God that people today find difficult, - including, I think we would have to say, a lot of Christians. There seems to be a strong element in the typical modern mentality, of hostility towards the idea of giving worship or reverence to anyone or anything.
Maybe it goes against the "democratic" spirit, or maybe at a time when all men and women enjoy equal rights and entitlements - at a theoretical level anyway - it seems offensive to modern ideas about human dignity. But there certainly seems to be a strain of thinking that says: if God is the type of person who demands "adoration", then he must be some sort of deranged tyrant, and he's somebody who deserves to be resisted, not honoured.
And there are two answers that we can give to those kinds of remarks.
First of all, I think we have to consider the possibility (quite a strong possibility in fact) that behind all the supposedly principled objections to worshipping God there is, actually, the old attitude of human pride and self-assertion which makes us resent anything that raises our sights beyond our own chosen concerns and preoccupations. We prefer to feel that we're in control in a world we make by our own efforts, than to see ourselves ultimately as servants, answerable to a higher power.
That's one issue, but there's another point. When people object to the whole idea of holding God in awe, they've often misunderstood what it involves. To adore God is never a question of cringing in front of him. It's never about having to be obsequious or servile.
A wonderful revelation
That's not the attitude struck by the figures around the manger, either in the gospels or in any of those great works of art I mentioned. Jesus' parents, the shepherds, the wise men, are all depicted as people who have had something wonderful revealed to them.
They express an attitude of joy in the face of God's glory. They've had an experience of awakening to the truth. They're moved to adoration because they're in the presence of something much greater than themselves, and they know it.
We live in a culture, now - or we've created a culture - which has become so absorbed with purely human priorities that we've lost sight of the fact that, the way we're made, we have an in-built need reach beyond ourselves, to the eternal - to God. And in actual fact, our dignity is demeaned when we don't acknowledge that, rather than when we do.
The way we degrade our human dignity is by directing our need to adore towards the wrong objects - not towards God but towards created things, towards ourselves and our short-lived desires and inclinations.
I would certainly argue that, on balance, when you look around at our society, we've not improved ourselves by largely removing God from the horizon of our lives. We've not become better, more generous, more just, more compassionate, more truthful people, by doing away with the aspect of reverence and awe towards God.
Our challenge as followers of Christ and as members of the Church is to show people that making genuine contact with God doesn't diminish our dignity as human beings. It brings out all the resources we've got within us that enhance our dignity. Because when we genuinely make contact with God we start to share in his life, we take on all the aspects of his character, and we start to get re-formed in the pattern of his holiness. The Word of God became flesh to lead us to a realisation of that truth.
So those are some of the aspects of the feast of Christmas that seemed to strike me most this year, for some reason. Those are the reflections I would offer on the readings that have been attached to the feast of Christmas Day, where the authors of the Christmas story show the child Jesus giving rise to this basic attitude of awe in the people who were first to see him and first to recognise him as the presence of God in the form of man.