God with us makes all the Difference!
When I was in Rome studying for the for the priesthood, a priest friend used often say to me that no amount of theology, or rector’s talks or books read could ever prepare us enough for parish life when we were ordained. “Give it a few years”, he used to say “and the edges will be knocked off you”! I can tell you the edges were knocked off me one Christmas morning not long after arriving in Navan. I had spent ages preparing the homily and waxed lyrically about the awe and wonder we feel as we gaze into the crib and that the harmony and peace of the holy family is almost a glimpse of heaven… So I went to the back door of the Church to greet people and wish them a happy Christmas. And it was all very pleasant. Until a woman comes up to me and with the best Dublin accent you can imagine she says “Father did you grow up in a family or did you land down in the last shower”? Because I can tell you, the crib was far from peaceful and quiet. What about the screaming child waiting for a feed? And the nappies that needed changing? What about where the next meal was going to come from? And if Mary and Joseph were any way normal they’d have be killing each other by that stage!! So much for my St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine…and Von Balthasar! This was a mother’s perspective on things. And she was spot on. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God was born. But he was a child like any other. And he came from a family like any other family, warts and all. When we think of it, that’s precisely what the incarnation means. God doesn’t become human flesh in half measures. The Word was made flesh and lived among us. God doesn’t shy away from becoming “our” flesh in all that entails. He assumes our human nature just as it is, with its hopes and desires as well as our brokenness and incompleteness… God stoops down to meet us precisely where we are, so that by God’s grace, we are given a share of his divine nature.
So in a sense, both of us were right that morning. Ok, the holy family is far from perfect. The serenity and otherworldliness on the faces of Mary and Joseph as they gaze on the infant Jesus only tell half the story. But the ordinary, every day struggles with which they are confronted are nevertheless infused by God’s grace. And that grace no longer comes in the form of some supernatural intervention “from on high”, for the incarnation means that we now carry the divine presence in our own flesh. St. Paul puts it beautifully in his letter to the Corinthians: “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassing power comes from God, and not from us.”
The Christmas narrative and the crib of Bethlehem bring the contrast between worldly power and heavenly power into sharp focus. At the stroke of a pen a census was ordered which might well have been motivated by a desire to inflate an Emperor’s sense of absolute power. Whatever his motivation, the decree of Caesar Augustus set Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife on course for Bethlehem. A census is a counting of heads, a measuring of populations and demographics but so often, the poorest and most vulnerable in society remain little more than statistics. Those who wield power and hold high office very often make decisions which impact most critically on the vulnerable, the young, the unborn, those on low income, the displaced or the aged. The shepherds in the fields weren’t registered at all in the census, because they were they effectively non-persons in the eyes of the authorities. And yet it was to those who went uncounted in that census, those on the margins, that the angel first announces the “news of great joy”. Those who do not register on any earthly radar become central characters and equal citizens in a new unfolding drama, the establishment of a new kingdom.
Two kingdoms are thus juxtaposed on this Christmas Day; the Empire of Caesar Augustus, who rules by absolute decrees, who tramples on the weak, who assesses his power by counting heads, who swells his territories and his jurisdiction with great armies and other kingdom; the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, which transcends all boundaries. A kingdom where no one is ever a mere statistic on a register. A kingdom where not only every head is matters but where every hair on each of our heads is counted, where shepherds and kings, bow low as equals before the infant child in the manger. Here the manger becomes a throne and the king makes his home with the lowest and those who go unnoticed. Here is a king who has no interest in building great fortresses or citadels, no need for vast armies, a king who only desires to conquer the territory that is our hearts. In the words of St. Ireneaus, God became man so that we could become more like God.
That’s the great miracle we celebrate on Christmas Day as we gaze into the serenity and peace of the hovel at Bethlehem. Today the Word is made flesh. And we see his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth!