Daily Archives: December 26, 2008
you gave your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him,
and be born of the Virgin Mary;
grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep,
I too must sing, with joyful tongue,
That sweetest ancient cradle song,
Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given
While angels sing with pious mirth.
A glad new year to all the earth.
–Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
–John Donne (1572-1631)
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm, howbeit he was not far from us Acts 17:27 before. For no part of Creation is left void of Him: He has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father. But He comes in condescension to show loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us. And seeing the race of rational creatures in the way to perish, and death reigning over them by corruption; seeing, too, that the threat against transgression gave a firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was monstrous that before the law was fulfilled it should fall through: seeing, once more, the unseemliness of what was come to pass: that the things whereof He Himself was Artificer were passing away: seeing, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery””lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought””He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours. For He did not simply will to become embodied, or will merely to appear. For if He willed merely to appear, He was able to effect His divine appearance by some other and higher means as well. But He takes a body of our kind, and not merely so, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, knowing not a man, a body clean and in very truth pure from intercourse of men. For being Himself mighty, and Artificer of everything, He prepares the body in the Virgin as a temple unto Himself, and makes it His very own as an instrument, in it manifested, and in it dwelling. And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father””doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.
–Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
St Luke tells us at the end of his story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem that his mother Mary ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2.19) This is what as Christians we do year by year, as, in the familiar words of Bishop Phillips Brooks’ much loved Christmas hymn, ‘the dark night wakes, the Glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.’ The Greek word which St Luke uses to speak of Mary’s deep and reflective meditation is sumballo, from which we get our word ‘symbol’. Mary both keeps and holds on to the amazing and overwhelming reality of God’s action and presence in and through her motherhood, and imaginatively reflects upon it, going deeper and deeper into the meaning of what this birth and this child, of which she is so intimately a part, is about. She ‘ponders in her heart’, and the heart in the Bible is not primarily the place of feeling, but of willing and of choosing. Her deep reflection is to shape her life, and brings her to the foot of the cross, and to be part of the worshipping and expectant community, as Luke tells us in Acts, awaiting the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The angel had said to Mary in the moment of annunciation that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ and therefore the child she was to bear would be called ‘the Son of God.’ And so Mary became, in the words of another ancient Christian hymn, ‘the gate of Heaven’s High Lord, the door through which the Light has poured.’ When Jacob in the ancient story in Genesis lay down in a desert place and dreamed of a ladder set between heaven and earth with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, he woke up exclaiming, ‘this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’ if this was true of the place of Jacob’s dream, even more is it true of the Mother of the Lord and Christian devotion has not hesitated to speak of Mary as the temple of God, the ark of the covenant, and the gate of heaven.
Mary, the ‘Christ-bearer’ reflected deeply and imaginatively on what Jesus meant, and she has been seen as an image, a picture of the church, which likewise reflects on and lives out the meaning of the God who so comes among us. The great movements of renewal in Christian history have come about through a return to what the Scriptures tell us. We have to realise over and over again how great and how overwhelming is the reality of God’s love which always comes down to the lowest part of our need, as it came in Mary’s child at Bethlehem.
Many years ago J.B. Phillips, one of the first translators of the Bible into contemporary English, wrote a book with the title, Your God is too small. He was right then, and is right now. Our human tendency is to domesticate God, to make God in our own image, to shape him by the culture and expectations of our own day, But the Gospel message of Christmas ”“ and of Good Friday and Easter from which that Christmas message is inseparable ”“ is of a love that goes to the uttermost and will never let us down and will never let us go. This is the ‘amazing grace’ of Evangelical conversion; this is the same grace which we receive and adore in the holy and blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. As John Betjeman put it simply, ‘God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine’ ”“ and so in our hearts, in our willing and our choosing, in our transformed lives as we like Mary live out our vocation as ‘Christ-bearers’. St John said of the Word of God who became flesh, that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness was not able to overwhelm it, to snuff it out. The light of Christ in us is to shine in the darkness ”“ the darkness of human fear, and violence, and the sinful distortions of deception and betrayal. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God with us, God in the muck and the mess (and the stench) of a stable at Bethlehem; God as a fragile, new-born child laid in the pricking straw of a rough feeding-trough; God in the mess of our world, a world both beautiful and distorted. At Christmas also we celebrate our own new birth, the Christ born in us. And so we rightly sing and pray:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
May the God who came to us at Bethlehem to take us by the hand, surround you and renew you with his love, and light, and grace, that you, like blessed Mary, may know his peace and joy this Christmas and in the year ahead.
With every blessing,
–(The Rt. Rev.) Geoffrey Rowell
One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who asked it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or, at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity. In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching. Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles. You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals. But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian. Conversely, once you have accepted that, then you will see that all other well-established Christian miracles–because, of course, there are ill-established Christian miracles; there are Christian legends just as much as there are heathen legends, or modern journalistic legends–you will see that all the well-established Christian miracles are part of it, that they all either prepare for, or exhibit, or result from the Incarnation. Just as every natural event exhibits the total character of the natural universe at a particular point and space of time; so every miracle exhibits the character of the Incarnation. Now, if one asks whether that central grand miracle in Christianity is itself probable or improbable, of course, quite clearly you cannot be applying Hume’s kind of probability. You cannot mean a probability based on statistics according to which the more often a thing has happened, the more likely it is to happen again (the more often you get indigestion from eating a certain food, the more probable it is, if you eat it again, that you again have indigestion). Certainly the Incarnation cannot be probable in that sense. It is of its very nature to have happened only once. But then it is of the very nature of the history of this world to have happened only once; and if the Incarnation happened at all, it is the central chapter of that history. It is improbable in the same way in which the whole of nature is improbable, because it is only there once, and will happen only once.
–C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Commitment is God’s fundamental pattern for all of us. The shame is that we seem to have lost the plot. We have so favoured casual and transient relationships, personal independence, frantic work practices that we’re now ill equipped to deal with some of the tough times that lie ahead.
You see, tough times require powerful life skills learned from God, often through families. But what if we’ve chosen not to learn them? We’re going to have to change our ways.
What do we need?
We need to connect with God in ’09, through Jesus. That’s called faith. Out of faith comes hope. The confidence that there is a future now matter how black the present appears ”“ God’s in charge of our present and our future.
And from faith and hope come love. The sort of love which Jesus had when he entered the world to save it.
that man was
made like God before,
But that God should
be like man
–John Donne (1572-1631)
Let’s apply the spiritual sense of the Christmas story to our lives. For that story happens not only once, in history, but also many times in each individual’s soul. Christ comes to the world ”” but He also comes to each of us. Advent happens over and over again.
Christmas is so familiar that we sometimes wonder whether anything fresh and true can be said about it.
But there is a way to explore its meaning that may seem new to us today, yet is in fact quite traditional, dating back to the Middle Ages and the ancient Fathers of the Church.