If you have paid close attention yesterday and today you may have noticed, as Brother David told us in his homily yesterday, that something is missing, or perhaps I should say, someone is missing, and you would be right. We have all been waiting a long time, and suddenly the day has come and gone, and now there is no sign of him. At least there is no sign of him in the way we might expect. In a flash, the stable and manger have disappeared, and with them the donkey and cow and sheep. Everything has been swept clean and there is no sign of star or shepherds or angels or even of Mary and Joseph. Except for passing references in the hymns this morning, and the shrine at the back of the chapel, the baby is gone. By tomorrow, shops will begin to strip the Christmas decorations away, after Christmas sales will begin, and you may even notice a few tinsel bedraggled Christmas trees by the curb with the rest of the garbage. It all seems to be over sooner than it began.
So here we find ourselves on the day after Christmas and the very thing we have all come to see, a baby in a manger, is missing. Only the vague memory of his birth lingers like those baby pictures we have seen of our parents and grandparents. Like them, we know he must have been a baby at one time, but even when we celebrate his birth the memory of the baby is fleeting at best.
For many, Christmas, if it is not just about Santa Claus, is only about a baby. To try to imagine Christmas without a baby is like trying to imagine it without Santa Claus. And yet here we are with certainly no sign of the jolly old elf himself, and only a hint of the baby. So why on earth are we here?
We are here, I hope, for the same reasons that John wrote his gospel and the author of the Epistle to the Galatians wrote the epistle. Neither of them make mention of the baby (and certainly neither of the make mention of Santa!) Unlike Matthew and Luke, John begins his gospel, not with the story of a baby, but with his great prologue which roots this Christmas festival in the very act of God’s self revelation to humanity:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
It is this that we celebrate today. Not so much the birth of a baby but rather God’s very self-revelation to humanity in the person of the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ: and the Word was made flesh and lived among us! We gather here today, not as children at a birthday party but as people to whom God has been made known, in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is this, as Christians, that is our claim: not that God exists, for many others also believe that; but rather that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
Like many others we are not alone in our belief in God. Nor are we alone in our belief in a personal God who acts, and even interacts, in personal lives and human history. What sets us apart is our belief that in Jesus, we see not simply a prophet or admirable teacher or healer or miracle worker, but the reflection of God and the exact imprint of God’s very being. What sets us apart is our belief that the person of Jesus reveals to us the very nature and purpose of God; indeed that Jesus reflects and manifests to us God’s glory. And we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son.
When we were children there was always a birthday party to look forward to, and they were wonderful events, especially if they were our own. We received all sorts of presents and ate too much (mostly things with sugar!) and often got too wound up. At the end of the day we were tired and probably cranky and maybe even sick. (Now isn’t that an apt description of Christmases past?)
If Christmas is not a birthday party, but a celebration of God’s revelation to us whereby we can come to know, and see God’s glory, then our focus needs to be less on the birthday cake and more on the gift of God that comes to us in the person of Jesus. Indeed the focus of our celebration, as both our readings from the Epistle to the Galatians and the Gospel According to John would point out, needs to be less on the baby and more on this act of God showing himself to us in the person of Jesus.
If this is true, what then are we celebrating?
What we are celebrating is what we have seen! As the First Letter of John puts it:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
Christmas is not so much about the birth of a baby as it is hearing and seeing and looking at and touching God! Christmas is about our ability to see and sense and hear and touch. It is about our ability to come to know God the maker and redeemer of all, in the person of Jesus Christ for it is Jesus who makes visible to us the One who is invisible. As the Epistle to the Colossians tells us, Jesus is the icon, the image, of the invisible God, who makes known to us the character and nature of God. And it is this that we have seen and heard and touched: the very character and nature and being of God. For in Jesus we have come to know and see and taste and touch God with our hearts and minds and eyes and mouths and hands.
We have come to know God through the kindness of strangers and the concern of friends, for Jesus has taught us that the very act of friendship is a sacrament of God’s love! We have come to see God in moments of loss and weakness and even death and not to despair, for in Jesus we have come to now that hope does not die but comes to life again when all else seems lost! We have come to taste God in bread and wine as we are fed with Christ’s very body and blood and nourished with God’s love, for in the Eucharistic bread and wine we have come to know the power of God’s love for us. We have come to touch God in the act of an embrace between two lovers and in the words: “I am sorry” and “I forgive you” and “peace be with you” for in Jesus we have learnt the grace-filled power of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.
Christmas is a feast of the senses! It is a celebration of our ability to see and know and taste and touch the power and glory and revelation of God. It is not just about a birth that happened long, long ago and far, far away. It is not just about a baby. It is about the way in which God manifests the divine life to us in the person of Jesus as friend and food and hope and love. It is a celebration of our ability to grasp God and to sense him with all our being for the God whom Jesus shows to us is not some ethereal god who vanishes like smoke, but is one who can be seen with our eyes and looked at and touched with our hands!
For the next Twelve Days, we celebrate Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, the Feast of the Word Made Flesh, the celebration that God can be seen and looked at and touched and tasted and known with our whole selves. This is the God to whom Jesus points. This is the God of whom Jesus is icon, and image, reflection and imprint. This is the God of Christmas. And this is what we celebrate today, that in Jesus you and I can see and know and touch and taste the very being and nature of God.
Now isn’t that something to celebrate? Isn’t that something to grab hold of? Isn’t that something worth proclaiming? That by Jesus, the Word of God made mortal flesh, we can come to see God and know that we are loved; we can come to taste God, and know that we are loved; we can come to touch God and know that we are loved.
Christmas is a feast of senses, a feast of sensing that God loves us in ways that we can see and taste and touch. So when we greet one another over the next twelve days with the words “Merry Christmas” we do so as a proclamation that God loves us, and all the world, and that love is worth celebrating.
Merry Christmas everyone, God loves you!
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