Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London
Sunday after Nativity, 11 January 2014
A few days before Christmas I visited the wonderful German Christmas Fair on the South Bank. With all its bright stalls, I hoped to be able to buy some presents at the last minute. My eye was caught by some pottery, unmistakably Palestinian. The stallholder told me it was from East Jerusalem and there were the familiar designs of fruit and flowers, loaves and fishes, birds and deer, and intricate, geometric patterns. Soon the seller and I got to talking. I told him that for a year I had worked in East Jerusalem; he knew the very house where I had lived. I was a Christian and he a Muslim. We commiserated over the plight of the Palestinian people, Christian and Muslim alike, and the peace that eludes both Arab and Jew in the Holy Land. He told me that he hated those who terrorise and kill in the name of Islam, since its name implies peace; and thus he recalled that in his religion there is supposed to be respect for Jews and Christians. “We are all the children of Abraham,” he told me, “and we share the same faith in one God. There should be no difference between us. In fact, there is no difference between us. Between the Christians and the Muslims there is only one, tiny difference: Jesus and who he was.”
But “Jesus and who He was” makes all the difference. We are not talking about a prophet from long ago. We are talking about Jesus and who He IS. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the apostle begins by making it clear that, while God spoke to us in the past through prophets, His last word is not through, but in, His Son. Jesus is not a prophet of Islam, later to be superseded by Mohammed. Even out of a well-meaning desire to be respectful towards the beliefs of our Muslim fellow-citizens and friends, we Christians must at all costs and in honest charity avoid disrespecting our own and referring to the great spiritual leader who was the founder of Islam as “the Prophet”, lest it be taken as our recognition that Jesus was but one prophet in a line completed with Mohammed. He is not our prophet, nor is he God’s last word to us. God’s last word became incarnate, and what used to be spoken to us in prophet’s words is now embodied in a human person whose followers have always recognised as being the Son of God.
Saying that Jesus is the Son of God does not mean that He is lower down than the Father, a little less of God than God. It means that He shares the same nature as the Father and comes from nowhere else but Him. A human son is not less of a human being than his father, but shares one and the same nature. Thus we describe someone who has grown up to be worthy of his parents as “a true son of his father”. By analogy, we likewise recognise in Jesus the Father, whose life, nature and glory He reflects and shares as the Son. The beloved, late Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, used to put it the other way round, “In God the Father, there is no unChristlikeness at all.” This is no mere poetic imagery. From the Church’s earliest moments, insisting on the title, “Son of God”, for Christ Jesus alone was costly and hard won. Prior to the birth of Jesus, the first of the Roman Emperors, Octavian Augustus, was hailed as Divi Filius, the son adopted by the deified Julius Caesar. He was praised as the son of a god for single-handedly bringing peace, order and prosperity to a once divided empire. You can see the inscriptions to this day in Rome. But to the Christians, the only bringer of lasting peace, peace on earth and peace between God and humanity, the only true Son of God, is Jesus. Thus with the Roman emperors began the long history of persecution of Christians for not worshipping human rulers as if they were above the earth and heaven that has lasted to this day.
Worshipping Christ as Son of God alone remains controversial. The week running up to Christmas I received an email from the Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarchate in Antioch documenting the 88 church buildings and charitable institutions of all denominations that had been attacked, damaged or destroyed. On Christmas Eve came news of three more. This is to say nothing of the harrowing of thousands of Christians far from home, including two archbishops from Aleppo, an entire convent of nuns from the city of Malloula where the language of Christ himself, Aramaic had been spoken to this day, and the clergy and young people whose lives have been claimed from them for the sake of simply following and putting their trust in the Son of God.
Out into the cold winter, there are those who are bent on evicting Christianity from the land which cradled it. The Melkite patriarch Gregorius often says that while the Son of God was cradled in Bethlehem, it was in Syria that his Body the Church was cradled. It was here that Christianity was truly brought to birth, for it was in Syria that we were first called Christians for loving Christ, for loving each other and for loving all in His Name. And two thousand years after the Nativity of the Son of God in the nature of human beings remains a scandal. It is so incomprehensible that to some it is unthinkable and unacceptable. It is so astonishing that it has to be taken down. That God should become human to be part of us, so that we can become part of him, is something so beautiful that humanity cannot bear to behold it without defacing it. The pain of looking on it is exquisite, for the meaning of the Son of God made Son of Man is that Love, which will never depart from us, cannot be faced unless we recognise that He has come not in force but to embrace us in living with Him the very life of God, able no longer to avoid God but to call on Him as Father, truly His sons and daughters.
It is not a question of following a prophet, or a great spiritual teacher, or a leader who founded a great historic faith. The passage of time has not changed the fact that something happened that turned nature inside out and altered everything about its relationship with its Creator. We Christians see it as nothing short of miraculous that a human child was born to us and that he is Son of God. The Christian does not explain this away as myth or even magic. For the miracle of God is not to work against nature or confront it, but to take it on and work through it. Last year, the great broadcaster Melvyn Bragg led a radio discussion on the arguments in the early Church about “Jesus and who He is”, loosely describing Him as “half God and half man”. But if He is half God, He only gets us halfway to God. If He is half man, He only gets God halfway to us. This is a mere hero, not a Saviour. This is what a Roman emperor wanted to be, a superman, and everything he thus could never be – never fully the Son of heaven, because he never came from heaven to become fully a son of the children of men.
A few years ago one Christmas morning I went privately to a packed, small Catholic church in south London. There was no ceremony and no organ to accompany our carols. All the parish’s energy had evidently gone into making special the masses of Christmas Eve and I was fretting that the many visitors would be left with a rather flat impression of our Christmas joy. That was until I heard the sermon, which went as follows.
Yesterday evening for the Vigil Mass, we asked the children to bring their favourite toy animal – not the one they didn’t want any more, but their favourite – and place it in the Crib through Christmastide alongside the shepherd’s sheep, the inkeeper’s ox, St Joseph’s donkey and the Wise Men’s camel. It was beautiful to see the children so devout as they lovingly put their cherished teddies, My Little Ponies, baby hippos and elephants, giraffes and birds and squirrels into the Crib. All through Christmas, those children’s hearts will be adoring our Lord too. It was beautiful Mass and I though all had gone really well until afterwards an older parishioner told me off on the way out. “I can just understand toy bears and farm animals, father. But the rest made a mockery of Christmas. There is no place for a lobster in the Crib.” I replied, “I know. It’s as crazy to put a toy lobster in a Crib as it is for God to put His Son in a human being. But He did.”
God may have begun to speak to us in the past in stories and signs, in prophets and heroic spiritual masters, but for two thousand years his last Word to us on everything has been Jesus, the Son of God. This Word makes all the difference for it is not merely the Word from God, and not merely the Word to us – it is God’s Word dwelling richly in us, full of grace and truth, full of hope and love, full of faith and life. To this day this, the only, Son of God makes all the difference; and, even now, people risk everything in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, in Belarus, Nigeria and southern Asia to follow Him – even life itself. We are one with them.
For when we say, “Christ is born”, we are not looking back with nostalgia, or even with happy memory. We are looking to the present and to the future. We see that Christ is being born in us now, again and again, with all the purpose and confidence for our sake that brought him to us in the first place. At the coming once more of “The Only Son from Heaven”, let all our hopes and fears meet in Him as humanity’s only true hope and salvation. Let us again place our confidence in Him and adore Him as the One who first loved us. In the words of our much loved English Christmas hymn, let this be our prayer not just for us but for all who hope for peace and goodness, truth and justice to come finally and reign:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray:
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.