“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The Oxford English Dictionary reported this year a surge in new words and the prevalence of old words with new meanings. Lockdown, pandemic, keyworkers, furlough, support bubble and circuit breaker have all soared in usage. We are only too familiar with them, though hopefully in the future they will recede.
When John wrote his Prologue to the Gospel, his hearers were much more familiar, in Hebrew and Greek, with the idea of “the Word” than we are. It could, as we imagine, mean something said. It also had a deeper meaning of that which holds all together, a founding principle, the bedrock of meaning, the essence of the fabric of everything.
Both are true of the Birth of Jesus.
Something has been said and proclaimed. God has spoken and what he has to say is Jesus. When we ask questions about God, or wonder what God is like, we know that we see him in this baby. He is with us, one with us. He cares deeply for us and comes for our salvation. He shares the vulnerability and fragility of the human condition, and in this naked love, he transforms and redeems.
The birth reveals that The Word that was in the beginning, the source of all life, becomes flesh and dwells among us. This is the grounding of all reality…and it does not get more real than this. Born to an unmarried mother, in the stark poverty of a stable, during occupation, and fleeing as a refugee from a genocidal tyrant. God has entered fully the human condition in all its extremes.
What is bizarre is how we have made a version of Christmas that is an escape from reality, or so we think. At some point late December it will be said “well…back to the real world”. Perhaps the hustle and clutter we call real life is the illusion. Perhaps the birth points us back to what is actually real.
We search for meaning. We search for God. We search for light in dark times. In the stable the search is called off. Like the shepherds, and Mary and Joseph, we too discover that we have not found God, but that God has found us. He has searched us out in raw, naked, vulnerable love to be with us, and to redeem us. As we gaze and adore, his bright and dazzling light scatters the darkness.
We will not always be able to meet together in the normal way during Advent, but we can still engage by Zoom with a very important subject in keeping with the season. Old Celtic proverbs introduce this well:
“We saw a stranger yesterday. We put food in the eating place, Drink in the drinking place, Music in the listening place, And with the sacred Name of the triune God, He blessed us and our house, Our cattle and our dear ones, As the Lark says in her song, Often, often, often goes the Christ, In the stranger’s guise. It is in the shelter of each other that the people live”.
In what has been a harsh year and a hard winter, this poem has much to communicate.
The Christmas Rose by C Day Lewis
Who is the child that’s born each year
His bedding, straw:
His grace, enough to thaw
My wintering life, and melt a world’s despair?
Harsh the sky and hard the earth
When the Christmas child comes forth.
Look! around a stable throne
Beasts and wise men are at one.
What men are we that, year on year,
In our cold wits devise
A death of innocents, a rule of fear?
Hushed your earth, full-starred your sky
For a new nativity:
Be born in us, relieve our plight,
Christmas child, you rose of light!
The season of Christmas and the mystery of the incarnation were always meant to be entered in quiet contemplation and prayer, expressed in kindness and service; not in frenetic activity. If Christmas is quieter for you this year may it be rich in a deep sense of the peace of the Christ child. We will miss dear ones, but they will be with us in our hearts and prayers. We will light candles not for atmosphere but for love and remembrance. We might write letters again and write words of encouragement and gratitude.
Of course it will be difficult for many and we must look after our own mental health and that of each other. Do not struggle alone. If loneliness or anxiety become too much, reach out! Ring or tell someone. We are there for you.
This prayer of St Brendan seems so appropriate to our times:
Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know that my times,
even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven and somehow,
make my obedience count for You.
Writing notes for future publications always involves a certain time lag. During this pandemic, that makes some things more uncertain than ever. Will we still be at ‘Level 3’ and having services at home, online? Will we be back to Sundays together or moved up to ‘Level 4’? We now know that we are at ‘Level 5’ until the beginning of December. In the midst of all this, a reminder that other things remain constant: the worship of God, the wave of prayer, daily faithful service of others and above all the abiding loving presence of God, who has a church not built with hands.
I remember a church which had a sign which could only be seen on the way out which read:
WORSHIP IS OVER; NOW THE SERVICE BEGINS
Christian faith is nurtured and worked out in our daily lives. In these days we shape our days by faith. Find a place for prayer and set time aside. At www.ireland.anglican.org you will find the Church of Ireland website and under ‘Worship and Prayer’ you will find ‘Daily Prayer’ with all the readings and canticles included for each day. There is also an app for your phone and the ‘Church of England Daily Prayer App’ is excellent and free. On the Cashel, Ferns and Ossory website, Bishop Michael offers weekly reflections. Don’t, though, limit yourself to one denomination. On the Glencairn Abbey website you can find an audio archive with morning and evening prayers sung. At Glenstal Abbey there is also a live webcam of services.
Offer your worship knowing that our brothers and sisters do the same elsewhere and look out for each other through contact and kindness. We need an organic networking around the seven churches in our Union to check in with people, help where needed and offer friendship and support.