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: He is the radiant light of God’s glory.
John 1:1-18: No one has ever seen God, it is the only Son of God who has made him known.

Sometime towards the end of the sixth century BC the prophet Ezekiel had a vision by the river Chebar, that is, by the rivers of Babylon, in which he saw the glory of the Lord. What he saw was so wonderful, so different from anything he had seen before, that his account of the experience remains mysterious. He draws on a wide range of natural and spiritual similes to communicate the grace given him, yet remains non-committal. Do not think, he tells us, that even the splendour I have drawn corresponds to the nature of what I really saw. Words simply cannot describe ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.’ In Ezekiel’s vision, you remember, the divine presence is carried by four living creatures, angelic emissaries of fierce and mysterious aspect. Their faces, however, are familiar and can, in some measure, be defined: ‘each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side; the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back.’ The early Church adapted this description to characterise the evangelists. It was considered providential and necessary that these, too, should be four in number, for their work was seen to correspond to that of Ezekiel’s cherubim. They were bearers and bringers of the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.

It falls to Luke to carry the announcement of Christmas in the masses of midnight and dawn. His emblem is the ox. To us, the association may not seem flattering. We think of the ox as plodder. To call someone bovine is not to pay a compliment. Earlier civilisations perceived the ox differently. It was a chief source of energy and power, at the same time locomotive, train, and tractor. And these, surely, are terms worthy of the third evangelist, the good and wise physician. Luke ploughs the terrain. He provides the most articulate account of Christ’s career and gives a compact summary of his teaching. For those who teach the basics of the faith, whose ‘beautiful feet’ bring good news, Luke’s gospel is an ideal aid to teaching. It shows the goodness and kindness of our Saviour in many memorable stories. It makes his doctrine come alive. It lets us find our own place within his story. The Church has chosen its midnight and dawn evangelist well.

This third Mass of Christmas, meanwhile, has a different character. The clear light of day enables us to see a fuller picture, to adopt a higher perspective. Our guide in this ascent is the fourth evangelist. His emblem is the eagle, and rightly so. John soars in the firmament, seemingly motionless, yet rising ever higher. He sees hidden and beautiful patterns that can’t be perceived from below. He gives us a share in his vision if we wish, but be prepared: to follow him we must take wing with him and fly with him.

The essential insight of John’s is this: that the birth of Christ at Christmas is not the beginning of the story about God’s Son. No, what Christ’s nativity reveals in time is a mystery of birth that precedes time and transcends it. ‘He was with God in the beginning.’ Before Abraham and Adam were, before the creation of galaxies and stars, he is. And where? In the bosom of the Father, generated from eternity in that tidal wave of love we know as the Holy Spirit. Being born of Mary, Christ came, says John, ‘into his own’. This is so not just in the sense that he is one of us. The world is ‘his’ in a far more radical way. It is his because he made it. It belongs to him by right. The God who comes to save us is the God who made us. His saving is our re-creation. His intent is not just to fix faults, to repair a system error wrought by human sin and folly. He comes to make us new, to let us be born from on high, not of the flesh but of power divine. He comes to make us children of God, to infuse us with the very breath of God.

‘Grace upon grace’, says John: that is what we get at Christmas. Our nothingness is charged with the fullness of him who is all in all; this without a trace of merit on our part. Truly, the love of God is poured out beyond measure. To know this influx of love, to feel its power, is to behold God’s glory. John, like Ezekiel, seeks words to express what, entranced, he has seen. He likewise struggles, though for opposite reasons. For Ezekiel, the glory of God was too sublime and too remote. How can the tongue of man speak of heavenly things? For John, the glory is too close. So readily we think of God as removed from ourselves that we struggle to see him in our form. Yet that is where he lets himself be found. Prepare yourself, then, says John. Rise and scale the heights. Let your eyes be made pure. See with your heart. Then, by grace, you, too, will behold the glory of God in this infant child, born to love us, born to save, born to suffer, die, and rise. The sight of his glory will teach you what you, too, are called to become. This Mass invites us to live contemplative lives, lives of wonder, thanks, and praise, and so to become true disciples.