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Believing in Man

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 24th December, 2017

As you enter the little town of Bethlehem, as I have done on three occasions spread over a period of forty years, you’re greeted  by a large banner across the road which reads, in Hebrew, ‘Blessed is he who comes’ and underneath it, in Arabic, ‘My tent is yours.’

It’s a great joy to be welcomed so gracefully to one’s ancestral home. Because coming to Bethlehem as a Christian, you have the feeling of going back to your roots.

The great basilica of the Nativity, as it is called, stands in the centre of the town. It was built more than 1,600 years ago over the cave which the early Christians venerated as the place here Jesus was born. The roofing that you see over you as you go in is, they say, English oak, donated by King Edward III at a time when the church was in need of restoration. The Crusaders who rescued the church from the Saracens walled up the doors to stop soldiers riding in on horseback, and for centuries the only entrance to the vast interior has been a tiny little postern gate, where you have to bend almost double to avoid banging your head.

At the far end of the church some steps are cut into the rock going down into the cave, and here too you have to stoop quite low until you stand in the cave and are able to look down at the silver star cut into the ground and read the inscription: ‘Here, of the Virgin Mary, was born Jesus Christ’.

It’s a sort of parable, I’ve always thought, each time I’ve visited Bethlehem, that no-one can come and see the place where Jesus was born without making this act of humility and obeisance. It’s as if the very stones are saying to you: ‘You’ve got to stoop here, pilgrim, this place where God has stooped so low for you.’

Indeed it’s a very strange thing that we have to reach to the world those of us who believe in Christ: that God is no longer to be looked for where people do look for him, up there, out yonder, up in the heavens. He is only here in something as utterly human as the birth of a child. ‘But that doesn’t look like my idea of God’ we say; and the reply is, ‘Very likely; it’s your idea of God which has to go.’

 The birth of Christ, for those who believe in him, means that from this moment on, the indescribable mystery which we call God can only be found in someone entirely like you and me. What the Christian is really trying to say at Christmas is ‘I believe in Man.’

The first people who heard this strange teaching called it atheism. ‘This,’ they said. ‘is emptying the heavens and getting rid of the gods. Away with these godless people.’ It could be that those first persecutions have given us Christians a sort of subconscious phobia, so that we’ve been scared ever since to say openly what our origins in Bethlehem proclaim: we believe in Man.  At Christmas we celebrate God’s nearness to his world; but if we are to avoid mere sentimentality, we have to remember that with his presence there is also his absence, and that with his coming to us there is also his going away from us. Presence and absence, nearness and distance, the Word and the silence: all there are elements of the Incarnation, all are part of an experience of God.

Furthermore, it’s only after he has gone from us, so he assures us, that we shall be empowered to do the things which he has done, and even greater things, because of his going to the Father. His departure is the means of a greater power; bereaved of his nearness, we gain access to a deeper strength

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