I wonder what memories you have of Christmas Eve as a child, maybe for some of you memories from long ago? If I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in my aunts’ terraced house in Devon, tucked up in a little camp bed, and watching the dancing patterns that the fire in the cast-iron grate made upon the dark ceiling. A feeling of excitement and expectation yes, but also a sense that something was making its presence felt, that something was happening that was beyond my grasp: a sense of mystery.
I wonder what Mary and Joseph’s feelings were like over 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born. A birth is such a commonplace affair – and yet so different, so shocking, so outside our everyday experience. As the baby took his first startled breath and his body became suffused with the flushed glow of new life I would be surprised if Mary and Joseph weren’t filled with a sense of the mystery of it all.
On this most holy night, we are all of us faced with a mystery - not a puzzle to be solved but rather the awareness of a presence: a presence normally outside our experience – and now seen, felt and heard in the first moments of a helpless baby’s life. That the glory of God entered that tiny child overwhelms our consciousness and our understanding. It is almost unacceptable, and totally shocking, that God could have made himself so open and so vulnerable.
But tonight is just the beginning of the journey. As we follow Jesus through the rest of his life, made real for us by the scriptures and by the ceremonies of the church throughout the year, we learn from Him that the glory of God lies not in strength and power, but in the openness of vulnerable love. Jesus offered that love, freely and unconditionally, to everyone he met. He was prepared, in God’s name, to welcome everyone: he drew no distinctions of race or class, wealth or religion. He brought his reconciling and healing touch to those who in his society were untouchable: to lepers and unbelievers, to collaborators and revolutionaries and to people who’d made a mess of their lives. And he constantly proclaimed God’s kingdom, a kingdom in which the law of love overcomes all the barriers and fears which separate one human being from another. Small wonder then that he came into conflict with those who had put up many of those barriers, the bigoted religious rulers in Jerusalem and the military and political leaders of the Roman Occupation. And in the end, in risking all for the sake of the Kingdom, he forfeited his own life. On Good Friday God’s costly love for humankind, first expressed in the stable at Bethlehem, reached its final consummation.
So during our Eucharist on this most holy night we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth, but also his life of self-giving, and the victory of his death on the cross. We praise God that he risked so much, that he made himself so vulnerable, for the sake of Love.
And where are we, what is our place in this drama? I’d like to suggest that the way in for us is through the character of Jesus’ mother Mary. For it was through Mary’s joyful acceptance of her role that the Christ was born. It was with her care and love that he grew to maturity, with her understanding that he was given the freedom to recognize and know the will of his heavenly Father. It was Mary who shared and watched as the first tender shoots of God’s new Kingdom grew up among her Son’s friends and followers. There are also clues in the Bible that Mary was given a premonition very early on, of where her Son’s vulnerable love might lead him – but her faith in Him never faltered, not even at the foot of the cross.
Here then is another mystery – that Christ cannot bring in God’s kingdom without our help. Love cannot coerce or command without turning into something else. And so God’s love comes to us like a helpless child, and we have to pick up that fragile burden and do what we can bring it to maturity and fulfillment. In this, perhaps, God has taken on the greatest risk of all, that we - through indifference, fear or self-interest - may abandon what He has given us.
And yet in accepting love and its consequences we know in our hearts that it can bring the greatest happiness that human beings can experience. As parents, children, friends, spouses, partners; we know that it is only when we abandon pre-occupation with ourselves, only when we make ourselves open and vulnerable to the needs of the other, that love and joy are brought fully into being.
At Christmas it is right that we should pray for ourselves and for our world – pray for an end to our greed and indifference and to all of our tragic misunderstandings, pray for peace among the horrors of hatred and conflict. But this is not the time and place for despair; this is the season for hope. It is the season when we recognise the overwhelming power of love, in all its trusting vulnerability: when we experience once more the mystery of the Lord of the Universe born among us as a helpless baby. And on this most holy night we are all of us surrounded by the glory of God in the face of our Saviour Jesus Christ, glory that is made perfect in weakness.
May God bless every one of you, and those who you love this Christmas, and bring you his joy and his peace.