Words on the Word

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10: They see the Lord face to face as he returns to Zion.
Hebrews 1:1-6: In our own time, God has spoken through his Son.
John 1:1-18: The Word was God.

The liturgy of Christmas Day, structured upon the majestic prologue of the Fourth Gospel, is charged with a certain austerity. The lines it draws are vertical. They pull us towards contemplation of the Godhead. There is no mention of ox and ass, angels and shepherds, or even of Mary and Joseph. Our gaze is fixed on eternity, the everlasting Word, ‘only Son of the Father’, the ‘radiant light of his glory’. He it is who ‘bares his holy arm’ by appearing to Zion, that the people, in awe, may acclaim, ‘The Lord is King!’ On Christmas Day, the Church requires us to be theologians, to engage profoundly with deep, fundamentally ineffable mysteries. At the same time, though, the mystery is grounded in the concrete and real, for ‘the Word became flesh’.

Now, we know perfectly well what it is to be ‘flesh’, the Bible’s shorthand for the human condition in its embodied earthliness. We know the hunger and thirst of the flesh. We know its longings and desires. We know its frailty, its capacity for pain. Many of us know what it is like when our body of flesh gets old and sick, lets us down, though the spirit may remain alerter than ever. We are reminded of what complex beings we are, what extremes our existence embraces. We may feel torn asunder. So much pulls us down, towards merely instinctual life, the earth, the grave. At the same time we long to soar into the highest spheres. If simply being human is challenging to this degree, what must it be to be fully human and yet to be filled with God? The question is not merely theoretical.

The Collect for today utters a prayer of stupendous audacity, to which we all said ‘Amen’. In it we asked that we—you and I, ordinary people—‘may share in the divinity of Christ’. The Word that was with God in the beginning, that was God, is no distant Word. For being ‘nearest to the Father’s heart’, it has drawn close. It would be ‘with us’, bestow grace upon grace, fill what is perishable with incorruptibility. How can this be? It is right that the perplexed question voiced by the Virgin in response to Gabriel’s promise, ‘You shall conceive’, should also be ours. The message of Christmas is this: the Word become flesh in Mary would take possession of our flesh, too. It would fill our lives and make them glorious. Brothers and sisters, do we realise how wonderful this is?

One who was alert to the wonder of it all was the priest-poet GM Hopkins. In these high matters, we need poets and mystics to serve as our guides, to bring tidings from distant shores, to give us courage to leave all securities behind and follow God’s call. In a poem from 1883 titled The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe, Hopkins sets out the stakes of incarnation with brilliant simplicity. He sings of her who ‘Gave God’s infinity/Dwindled to infancy/Welcome in womb and breast’. He is sure that her mission does not end there, for she ‘mothers each new grace/That does now reach our race’. What does such mothering mean? How can we understand it? The Virgin, says Hopkins, ‘This one work has to do—/Let all God’s glory through,/God’s glory which would go/Through her and from her flow/Off, and no way but so.’ To refuse nothing, to hollow out life to be pure capacity: such was the call to the Virgin, accepted in her resolute Fiat.

Our vocation is the same. Were our response as unconditional, not only would our lives be transformed—the world would no more be the same. At the root of all spiritual malaise, of all inward misery (with its outward repercussions) lies a ‘No’ to God; a refusal to let God be God and to act as God. How easily we treat him, instead, as a merchant. We bargain, look for discounts, and turn pouting away if we don’t get what we want. If only we would let God’s glory through! We should know, then, ‘that we are wound/With mercy round and round/As if with air’. We should learn to receive and give gratuitously. To one who holds nothing back, God gives all. He dispenses grace upon grace. He gives himself.

The Gospel speaks of the resistance God met on entering humanity. ‘He came to his own, his own received him not.’ They considered him a while from a distance, charmed by some things he said, disgusted by others; they called on his services, rejected his commands. In the end they turned their backs on him, some after spitting in his face. This still goes on. May we never have a part in it! May we turn the trend! On Saturday, I received an email from Aleppo, from a Jesuit there. It spoke of poverty, wanton exploitation, sickness, hunger, cold, a city full of rats, vast needs and next to no resources. In such straits, might one be tempted, like Job’s wife, ‘to curse God and die?’ Not this Jesuit. Precisely here, he writes, ‘our work is cut out for us to God’s greater glory’. God’s glory needs only a crack to enter our dark world. A heart torn open can be such a crack, enabling mercy to unfold, to wind us ‘round and round as if with air’. This is the Good News. Let us heed it, give ourselves to it unstintingly, and never cease to give thanks for the incalculable and nonetheless free gift of God. Amen.