"There is a most unpromising introduction to the proclamation of the birth of Christ, as we have heard it this night, in the Gospel of St Luke. A census of all the people had been ordered. Now censuses are never popular, especially not this one, imposed by an occupying force, a deeply hated form of government. Censuses are instruments of control. Once the information has been gathered then unwanted consequences follow: an increase in taxation or a wider conscription into the army, for example. I am not sure what the first century equivalent would have been of the unwelcome brown envelope dropping onto the mat!
Yet out of this unpromising circumstance, tonight we announce news of great joy: a saviour is born to us; a son is given; a light has shone in our darkness; justice and integrity, so elusive to our own efforts, are now promised to us by God himself.
A beautiful and appealing way of expressing these truths are these few lines of poetry:
Oh great little one,
Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven
Stoops heaven to earth.
Here is expressed for us the promise of this night, of this great feast: that there is a touch of the eternal in our midst, and that he who comes actually raises who we are and what we do into an entirely new realm. Our earth, our efforts, our reality are lifted into heaven, just as the glory of heaven comes to be our light and our
What does this mean?
Surely it means that in the light of this night, every act of kindness and compassion which we perform is seen to be lifted to heaven, revealed to be of God. Surely it means that our best efforts at daily work, whether keeping the home or the streets clean, or creating new wealth through business and enterprise are now seen to be what they are: a sharing in the creativity of God himself, who in the coming of this divine child raises up to heaven the good things of this earth. Surely it means that all true human loving is now seen to be rooted in, and expressive of, the
love which is God, which is seen in this stooping low by God to show us the fullness of that divine love. Surely it means that the love of husband and wife, which is creative of new human life, is a marvellously personal sharing in the creative love of God who brings into being the eternal soul that comes to every human being with the gift of human life.
For these marvels we indeed give thanks to God this Christmas night as he bestows on our earthly realities the grandeur of his presence. Tonight we discover again that, in God's absolute graciousness, he entrusts himself to us and that we become partners with God in the work of his creation.
Yet, as St Paul reminds us, if this promise is to be realised in its fullness, then we need to be purified. There are, he tells us, things that we have to give up as they do not lead directly to God. There are aspects of our lives that cannot be lifted up to heaven without that purification.
Sometimes our charity is formed more out of self-interest that genuine compassion for the other. Perhaps we have more than half an eye on the onlookers who will be impressed by our public generosity so that we are seeking the glory that will be ours rather than the relief of need.
Sometimes patterns of work and business are simply exploitative of employees, suppliers or customers. A corrosive disrespect can fashion the culture of a business and put in it need of refashioning.
Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young.
This Christmas is then a time to make fresh resolves that what we bring to the crib may be more readily, through the Lord's mercy, raised to heaven and become fittingly part of God's good work.
A light is given; it brings us great joy, for now we see a sure pathway by which we can make our journey. A son is given; it brings us great joy, for now we know we have a companion who will never abandon us and who can bring us his gift of peace. May this Christmas mark a new beginning for each of us. May the birth of this child also herald for us another meeting with him which is to come when, at the moment of our death, with mercy offered in greater abundance than our repentance, he ushers us into his kingdom, our true and eternal home. He comes to give us that promise. May we welcome him with great joy this holy night. Amen.