Words on the Word

Christmas Midnight Mass

Isaiah 9.2-7: The jealous love of the Lord of Hosts will do this.
Titus 2.11-14: No ambition except to do good.
Luke 2.1-14: She wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

Christ’s birth of the Virgin Mary is as precisely placeable as any event in Antiquity. We know the time: the governorship of Quirinius can be researched in Roman annals. We know the place: Bethlehem is a key reference in Scripture. At the time of Jesus, the town lay in the middle of the country. Today it is 74 km away from the border to Gaza. On account of the terrible war now raging, there will be no public celebration of Christmas there this year.

It is important to maintain an historical focus. Our faith is an historical faith. It is based on things that actually took place, on concrete traces of divine action. Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, is no metaphor. He is a real presence. Our Christmas carols and mangers remind us of this. They recreate a demonstrable environment — a little romantically, of course, but nonetheless with a taste for realism. When we speak of Christ’s birth, we know a ‘when’ and a ‘where’.

At the same time the incarnation transcends all geographical and chronological limits. When God became man, eternity slipped into undulating time. All of a sudden, the kingdom of God was in our midst. The incarnation enables us to encounter God in time. Even the most restricted space opens onto heaven. God’s taking flesh happened ‘in those days’, yes; but it is also contemporaneous, on-going. The incarnation touches us concretely. We are called not just to believe in the mystery of Christmas; we are called to experience in our flesh.

A recent experience gave me fresh insight into these things. Permit me to share it with you. On 5 December I consecrated the monastery church at Munkeby, an important occasion for our prelature. The ritual is wonderful. At its centre is the consecration of the altar, upon which the wonder of Emmanuel is repeated daily. Our ancestors in the faith were terribly conscious of this. Think of the mosaic of the Virgin and Child often found in the apse right above the altar in ancient churches. To this day the priest prays over the offerings, on the fourth Sunday of Advent: ‘May the Holy Spirit sanctify these gifts laid upon your alter just as he filled with his power the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’

A new altar is consecrated in four stages. First it is aspersed with holy water, to be washed outwardly. Then it is anointed with chrism. Oil has the ability to penetrate below the surface of things, to reach their core. Then five little bonfires are lighted on the altar, one for each of the consecration crosses representing the Crucified’s wounds. Fire burns away dross, uncleanness that sticks to us so firmly we mistake it as part of ourselves; only when it is consumed by flames do we recognise it as a foreign element that has corrupted our authentic self – a striking image of the role sin can play in our lives. In a fourth, decisive stage, incense is put on the fires. To receive the Lord’s presence it is not enough to be washed clean; we must in addition be fragrant with the sweet perfume that issues from living by the Lord’s commandments, from living our life to his praise and glory.

The loveliest part of the whole service occurred when I, as officiating bishop, had thus done what pertained to me. I sat down, as the ritual prescribes. Then two nuns of Tautra came up and readied the altar for the celebration of Mass. They put cloths on it, three of them, one on top of the other. They did this with such care, such tenderness that I was moved to tears. I was struck as with a flash of lightning: Truly, what is going on here is real! The altar is no longer just a massive block of stone. Mystically it has turned into a body, an image of the Mother of God; the linen is like the swaddling cloths in which she wrapped her Firstborn. The altar also represents us who recognise God’s work in Christ Jesus, who would open our heart, our mind, our body, and cry, as in Brorson’s psalm, ‘O Jesus, come inside!’: ‘The dwelling is not strange to you/You redeemed it yourself/So shall you faithfully/Be swaddled in my heart.’

Throughout Advent we have heard the call: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make paths straight before him.’ The ritual of dedication shows us how we must proceed. We must be cleansed, purified, and hallowed. Not that we can work up a kind perfection on our own. God is God. We are dust. In no way can we, under our own steam, hoist ourselves up to his level. He descends to us, by grace. ‘He emptied himself and took on the form of a servant’ (Phil 2.7). Nevertheless he remains God, bearing a holiness that we here, in the created order, experience as consuming fire (cf. Heb 12.29). The angels lowered their gaze before the manger. To receive the grace of incarnation, we must let all that be burn away that cannot endure God’s flaming presence.

God came to save sinners, yes; but in order that they – we – may be transformed and made partakers of divine nature (2 Pet 1.4). That is no joke; it is the most serious thing in existence. ‘I have come to cast fire on earth’, said Our Lord. We are called to be bearers of that fire. If we despair at the state of the world, at the misery we see, let us remember that Jesus’s work of salvation continues through the Church. We are called to be its tools. Emmanuel, God-with-us, would through us cleanse the earth with water, oil, and fire, then spread abroad his sweet perfume. The grace of Christmas is anchored in history but nonetheless points forwards to a new heaven, a new earth. The angelic Gloria resounds across the fields with a call to a task that is ours. May we not deny the Lord anything he asks for. May we always put our lives at his disposal. Thus, only thus, will true peace and transforming grace gain a foothold on earth.