God dwelt among us so that we might dwell in him
(Midnight Mass Readings: Isaiah 9: 2-7, Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14; Mass During the Day: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-6, John 1-18.)
Introduction to Mass
In the great feast of Christmas we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation: God came to dwell among us so that we could dwell with him and in him.
To begin Mass we think of all the ways we turn away from our vocation to live with God and in God, and we ask him to forgive us and heal us and strengthen us with his grace.
Here in this country Christmas takes place "in the bleak midwinter": it's cold, it gets dark at four o'clock in the afternoon, and especially if there's been a good fall of snow, everything gets very quiet and still.
Dark and stillness and cold was the setting for the first Christmas. The story begins - we just heard Saint Luke's version - with the shepherds keeping their night watch over their sheep; and as they're doing that, God is coming into the world in a stable – in obscurity, unknown to anyone, without any publicity in the modern sense.
No doubt back at the inn, where Mary and Joseph had tried to get a room for the night, there was plenty of noise and drinking and laughter. But of course there was “no room at the inn” and so Christ wasn't born in the midst of noise and laughter and in a party atmosphere, he was born outside all that, in the dark and stillness and cold.
Saint Luke is writing theology. He's not writing history. He's telling us something about what God is actually like, not writing a newspaper report.
And one of the things he's telling us is that the way God came on the scene at the first Christmas is the way he usually comes to us – in the quiet, still, dark moments.
If our minds are always busy, always full of other concerns, always planning what to do next, if our hearts are full of all kinds of self-centred desires, pushing us in all directions, then we'll never be able to bring ourselves to the point where we can hear God communicating to us.
It's a bit ironic, now, that the time of the year when we celebrate our Christian feast of Jesus' birthday, with all these themes of peace and joy and the light of God coming into the darkness of our lives - that, under the impact of consumerism and the non-believing celebration of Christmas, its become one of the unhappiest and least enjoyable times of the year for so many people.
We need to damp down the frenzy of greed and the storm of restless, grasping, self-seeking motives in order to receive God into our lives - at Christmas or at any time.
At the same time it's also one of God's quirks that he often comes to us and makes himself known in darkness. "The people that walked in darkness," says the prophet Isaiah, "has seen a great light". "On those who live in a land of deep shadow, a light has shone".
Many people have learned wisdom and strength, and have found themselves growing closer to God, not in the happy and enjoyable and pleasant events in their lives, but by passing through some sort of darkness - through pain or sorrow or loss or abandonment.
Darkness can be a creative thing as long as we can hold onto the hope that no matter what has happened to us - and no matter what we ourselves may have done to others - God never abandons us. God never turns his back on anyone. We might adapt those words of Isaiah and say that "for those whose lives are covered by a deep shadow, God's light will shine".
But of course what we also shouldn't forget is that as the community of believers we have always got to be the means of God's light shining in the darkness. Whatever anyone else is doing, we have got to be the instruments of his love and care and forgiveness and justice, dispelling the cruelty and the greed and the untruth and the manipulation that do so much to disfigure people's lives, their relationships and the community they live in.
We’ve got to have that sense that even if the majority never turns and embraces the Christian message, our job as the little flock is to keep the light of God’s truth shining in a world that gets very dark sometimes.
We’re told by St. Luke that when the angel of the Lord appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, they were terrified. And again, the same is true for us: it's easy, in one sense, to feel frightened or at least awe-struck by God when we genuinely encounter him.
Not because God tries to be frightening but because when we come up against the majesty of God, the purity and the perfection of his goodness, it makes us very conscious of our own sinfulness, our lack of love and goodness and truthfulness. We're very conscious of how different God is from us, how far above us he is.
And of course, if it was left to us, if we were responsible for working out our own salvation, that's how things would stay.
Fortunately, it's not left to us. God takes the initiative, we only have to respond. "Do not be afraid," says the angel – a phrase that occurs over and over again during the events leading up to Jesus’ birth. "Today a saviour has been born to you". And the great throng of the heavenly host appeared, says Luke, praising God and singing: "glory to God in the highest, and peace to all those who enjoy his favour".
Christ's coming gave glory to God, because it showed the lengths he was prepared to go to bring us back into communion with him.
And it brings peace to us, because the more we genuinely receive Christ as our lives go on, the more we stop all that restless striving for other things that keeps us away from him. And the more we're drawn into God's life, which is all he wants, the more we'll become a source of his peace and stillness to other people.
So those are some of the themes that struck me this year about the readings for Christmas Day. The gospel doesn't say what happens next, but what happens is that the shepherds, having received this vision, went home, in Luke's words, giving praise and glory to God. And that's what we have to do as well.
When we've heard the Christmas message announced to us again this year, we have to go back to our lives, our homes, our work, our friends, the ordinary, humdrum activities that we have to get on with every day. But we have to go back conscious of God’s constant presence among us, and determined to turn all our activities into opportunities for giving praise and glory to God, and peace to all men and women who enjoy God's favour.