This Christmas morning we have come again to hear the message of the angels, in Luke’s moving narrative. The heritage we bring to this story is one of ethereal beauty and splendour: the velvet, starry night, the darkness of the stable; the gentle sounds of the animals, the sudden radiance of the angels.
Yet of course the birth of Jesus was, in historical terms, an insignificant event. It takes place in a tiny, unimportant province, far from the seat of power. The wider stage is the Roman Empire under the Emperor Augustus – the great Emperor whose rule had heralded the pax Romana – a golden age of peace and security for the Empire. The “Saviour” of his people – Augustus was called – you can still see this title, still inscribed on surviving coins and monuments.
In a territory ruled by the great Augustus, Luke gives us this story of the birth of a child to a poor family: of a heavily pregnant woman forced, because of the Emperor’s casual decree, to travel the rough road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; of an arrival in a town plunged into chaos by the census decree; of all lodgings taken; of the pain and fear of childbirth in a cold stable; of the newborn child, placed unceremoniously in an animal’s feeding trough.
Not that ethereal or splendid after all you might think. The only people who know of this event are shepherds – people on the margin of things; too insignificant, to the Romans, even to merit inclusion in the census. Yet something has happened – for into the shepherds’ dark night of watching breaks the shimmering glory of the angel host, with its message of the birth of a child which “good news of great joy for all people.” (2:10).
There is a message here: forget the Emperor Augustus, Luke is telling his listeners, he is not the Saviour of the world – it is this baby – a child of poverty and exclusion; he is to be the only real Saviour. The Pax Romana of the Emperor Augustus looks to putting the army on standby and stockpiling medicine, but the Pax Christi- the Peace of Christ offers a radical alternative.
This is the extraordinary claim of the Christmas message: that God slips quietly into the world – as a newborn infant, laid in animal’s feeding trough. Every mother knows the utter vulnerability of a newborn baby. And this, Luke says, is how God comes to us: needing human hands to hold him, a mother’s milk to feed him, a mother’s love to nurture Him. And yet...as Mary bends to kiss his face – she kisses the face of God.
This is the true mystery of Christmas: that a Divinity – beyond human comprehension – is willingly confined within a human baby and has become fully human. This is the mystery of God’s in-carnation – the Word that existed before all time has been made flesh in time for our sake.
What does this tell us? Two things, I think: First that God comes to us in weakness. He might have come with power and triumph – but He does not. The incarnation shows us that there is a different way. In a world ruled with force by a Roman Emperor this is the birth of a new King – the Pax Christi. Yet no one, except a few shepherds, knows of it. As we look at our world this Christmas we need this different way. We do not need reminders also of the violent destruction of Syria; Terror in many parts of the world, and closer to home, the standing rebuke in the collective failure of vision which is Brexit or no Brexit. We can see how important this Christmas message is. The desire for power, the fear of loss of control, the use of force to maintain it: it is all ultimately empty – it is death dealing. God puts all this aside in the act of incarnation. The incarnation is a willing letting go – God makes Himself power-less for our sake.
Secondly God comes to us in total sympathy with our human condition. By entering human history as a baby born in poverty he identifies himself with the powerless, the oppressed, the homeless and the needy. The Hebrew word for this is “Emmanuel” – meaning God is with us – this is a statement of divine solidarity with humanity. For those who have least, this nativity story is especially precious. Our fellow Christians, celebrating Christmas in Iraq and Syria will know that. And yet, we are all in need. We are in need of healing and of hope. The coming of the Christ Child, in the cold of the winter stable, is a glimmer of light in the darkness – of hope in the midst of fear. Two thousand years ago this light and hope came to us, and, two thousand God is with us, He shares in everything that makes us human – our fragility, our weakness, our vulnerability, and our need for love. He heals and restores our humanity by taking the whole of it into Himself. So this Christmas we can bring to Him, our joy and gladness, of course, but also those things which, when we look back on the past year, we would lay aside if we could – our sorrows and fears, our failures and our disappointments. The peace the angels speak of is more than mere absence of strife; it is the hope of a restoration to wholeness for every individual who accepts it.
‘The people that walked in darkness’, the prophet Isaiah said, ‘have seen a great light’ – may you know the light, the joy and the peace the Christ Child brings, in your homes and in your