And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 - 10:00am

 

Nero was one of the most hated Roman emperors in history, and it’s fairly easy to see why. In the wake of the great fire that swept through Rome in 64AD, he made use of the now conveniently vacant plots on the Palatine Hill to build himself a vast and lavish pleasure palace, known to posterity as Domus Aurea- the Golden House. Covering hundreds of acres, it had 300 rooms. It drew its name from the prodigious use of Gold leaf around its walls. The ceilings were encrusted with jewels and precious stones. It was bedecked with tapestries, mosaics and frescoes. There were pools in the floors and fountains splashing in the corridors. There was a gigantic octagonal court with a moving ceiling cranked by slaves, which revolved like the heavens, sprinkling perfume and rose petals on those below.

 

It is said that when Nero was first presented with the completed edifice, he simply turned to those who were with him and said:

 

‘At last, I can begin to live like a human being.’

 

Now, we may laugh at Nero’s somewhat inflated idea of what constitutes acceptable living quarters, but his remarks do raise the question of what it means to be human. Is it a great dignity to be lived up to? Or is it a flaw to be excused? Are we aspiring to be humane, or apologising for being only too human? The story of this night gives God’s answer to that question.

Keeping this in mind, I should probably begin with a confession. It may shock you to learn that, in spite of its popularity, I am not a fan of the carol, Away in a Manger. Many Christmas carols do a brilliant job of describing what Christmas means, but Away in a Manger is not one of them. It is altogether too treacly for my taste. More especially, I have always rebelled particularly against the line:

 

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, / but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’

 

Why not? There’s nothing wrong with crying. It’s what healthy babies do. It’s perfectly normal to cry. And here is the problem. The carol seems to want Jesus not to be normal. Whereas the whole point of Christmas is that Jesus was born a perfectly normal baby boy. A human being.

 

‘In the beginning was the Word’ says the Gospel of John. It would seem perverse if the birth of one who is called the Word should take place in eerie silence. I hope that little Jesus screamed and bawled as he came into the world. I hope that his cries broke the silence of that night as surely as his life woke the world from sleep. Because Jesus, the Word, is the shout of God- God calling to us across eternity to express his love.

 

And this Word, John tells us, was already there at the beginning of time. And the Word of God, belonging to the very inner being of God, came to us not like a child, or within a child, but as a child; A tiny, fragile, helpless child. This is the message that we hear from the gospel tonight.

 

But why? Why, if God wanted to communicate his love to us, would he do it in a way so obscure and fraught with risk? Because, I suppose, it is one thing to be told about love, and it is another to be shown. 

 

When we talk about God, we are talking about one whom we have never seen. Like the wind, we only know God through His effects on ourselves and the world around us. When we think about God we are by definition thinking about one vaster and more glorious than we can imagine. How does God, loving us with a love wider and fiercer than we can conceive, make it known to us, who can only skirt around the edges of knowledge?

 

He takes the initiative. He comes to us and puts himself at our mercy. He risks himself, and challenges us to receive him as one of our own. He shows us what being a human being can really mean by beginning again, and giving us, in Jesus, a living picture of what humanity can be when it fulfils its potential, when it is free from self-destructive violence and greed and self-interest. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, full of Grace and Truth and self-emptying love.

 

On the one hand this new beginning tells us something about God. On the other, it tells us something important about humanity. About God, we discover that the whole of Jesus’ life was not simply the story of a good or even a miraculous man, but that in everything that he did: healing the sick, caring for the outcast, feeding the hungry, forgiving the sinner, he was living out a self-portrait of God on a scale we could comprehend; a God of humble simplicity and mercy, who rejects self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and who loves the very people whom religions reject.

 

But from that portrait we discover also just what we can be, what we were meant to be from the beginning. We find in Jesus a humanity that is made in the image and likeness of God, and we begin to see it in ourselves and in others around us. Tonight we catch in the infant Jesus a glimmer of a different world, or rather the same world changed and transformed by the glory of God.

 

This is why we have braved the winter weather tonight, and come to gather round this altar. As we are fed by God, who humbly draws near to us in bread and wine, as surely as he did that winter’s night in Bethlehem, we can taste the promise of a kingdom yet to come; a world where peace and justice are not empty half-truths, but where they flow like a river. A world where our hunger is fed, our blindness is healed, and our deepest needs are met.

 

More than this, we will receive the strength ourselves to begin again. To join with Jesus Christ in remaking the world as God intended – recreated as a place fit for human beings.