Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas - Day Mass

Day Mass - Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18

These are among the most beautiful readings one could choose from anywhere in the scriptures. 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news', the watchmen who announce the return of the Lord. 'In many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets but now he has spoken to us through the Son'. 'In the beginning was the Word, through whom all things were made, who was the life and the light of human beings': being, life, understanding. And 'though the law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ'. 'The Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us and we have seen his glory'.

Like pearls or precious diamonds one can allow the radiance of these phrases to illuminate our minds and slowly nourish our thoughts. The public reading of them must surely touch our hearts as well. Perhaps they have the power they do not just because they are beautiful texts in themselves but because of the place they have in the centuries long tradition of the Church. As we hear them we know that our ancestors too have listened to these words, have wondered at their meaning, have been encouraged and enlivened by what they reveal.

We can experience similar responses to great literature of any kind, a sonnet or soliloquy of Shakespeare, a passage from Dante or Milton, in modern times a poem of Seamus Heaney, or some pages of Sebastian Faulks, or the resolution of a wonderful film ... literature has this power, to evoke feelings and identifications, to put to us questions of meaning and purpose. All words of value, words that carry truth, or are beautiful, or speak of goodness, are sparks of the Word. They come from and point towards the original uncreated Word that was with God in the beginning and was God. All truth, all beauty, all goodness arise in the uttering of that Word. All being, all life, all knowledge and understanding, are established in the uttering of that Word.

Some might have a problem with that, wonderful as it seems. If there is no God, for example, then neither can there be God's original uncreated Word. Philosophers and writers are today again raising the question of the purpose of things, describing the distinctively human level in our experience and the way in which the world seems to need a destiny, a forming and guiding principle that evokes, shapes, and draws things onwards. People speak of the spirituality there is in art, music, and poetry, what it evokes and draws out in them, the sense of something mysterious at the heart of our experience.

Some might have problems from another direction: what can 'the Word became flesh' mean, this identification of the original uncreated Word with one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus who is called the Christ? That name appearing in the great prologue of John's gospel ought to unsettle and disturb us. We know it is coming: John prepares us for it by speaking about his namesake, John the Baptist, who bears witness to the light that is to come after him. In one sense, then, we are not surprised when the dwelling of God with us is identified with Jesus Christ. In another sense how can the fulness of the deity be found, be held, in a single human individual?

This is the question Jesus himself puts to his disciples later on: who do you say that I am? Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, John tells us. 'Grace and truth' is steadfast love and faithfulness so well established in the Old Testament as the character of the Lord, the God of Israel. We have come a long way from the time when the Lord was understood as a tribal God fighting for his chosen people and pushing out other peoples and their gods. We have come a long way even from the universalism of the prophet Isaiah who foresaw the coming of all people to Zion to worship the God of Israel. We have here a fulfillment of the prophecies of Ezekiel, that God would come himself to shepherd his people, to seek them out, to heal them, to care for them, and to win them back through his tenderness and love. 'Grace and truth', the divine nature in other words, have come into the world through Jesus Christ.

Our faith is not just a spirituality, then. Ours is a physical religion, asking us to believe in events and persons of flesh and blood, living and acting within our space and time. In one sense spirituality is easy. Paradoxically, it is closer to hand. We can move easily from sentiment, to emotion, to deep feeling and compassion, to a sense of something mysterious opening up through this: it is what music, poetry, and great art does to us.

More difficult to believe is the presence of God the Creator in the helplessness of a newborn child. Not just a sense that every newborn child is, as we rightly believe, a gift of God. But a conviction that in this particular newborn, son of Mary and as it was supposed also of Joseph, the original uncreated Word, abiding with the Father in eternity, becomes one of us. 

A quick moment's reflection assures us that this is the only thing worth believing. All other interpretations of readings such as those we hear today - more rationalist, more intellectual, more spiritual, more literary interpretations - all of these leave us exactly where we were before. With admirable feelings and questions, yes. But the conviction that in Jesus Christ God becomes visible, that the mystery at the heart of reality has revealed Himself in human form: this is something worth believing and it has immediate implications for how we value ourselves, our own flesh, our own animality, our own bodies, our own dignity as what we are. He is not an angelic visitor from another plane just as we are not angelic visitors trapped in animal bodies. He is a human being like us, in fact more human than we are.

Here is a poem that expresses it well. It is by Edwin Muir. It can be heard as a beautiful description of the experience of meeting another person and falling in love. But let us interpret it today, Christmas Day, in the register of the scripture readings we have just heard. Let us hear this poem as speaking of Jesus Christ, of our experience of encountering Him, of the fact that He is the Word or Wisdom of God through whom all things are made:

Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face.
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that's honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world seem bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed,
The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea.
Not beautiful or rare in every part.
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.

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