Christmas 2015

 

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν· ‘He became human so that we might become divine

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

 

Love tends to become like the one loved; in fact, it even wishes to become one with the one loved. God loved unworthy man. He willed to become one, and that was the Incarnation.

Fulton Sheen The Divine Romance New York 1930: 70

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We have come here tonight to celebrate something which defies our understanding and expectations. The simple fact that the God who created all that is took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born for us in Bethlehem as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, who would save us from our sins, should still feel strange and odd. It simply doesn’t make sense, nor indeed should it. In human terms, Mary should have been stoned to death for extra-marital infidelity, and some thirty three years later her son is executed as a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a trouble maker, in an awkward backwater of the Roman Empire, having gathered round himself a small group of misfits and undesirables appealing to the baser elements of society. There is nothing respectable here, just the rantings of religious extremists.

And yet here we are, some two thousand years later, celebrating the birth of a child who changed human history and human nature, because we do not judge things solely by human standards. We come together so that we may ponder the mystery of God’s love for us, a God who heals our wounds, who restores broken humanity, who offers us a fresh start, who can see beyond our failures and shortcomings, and who becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we may share in the divine life of love, both here on earth and in heaven.

If that isn’t a cause for celebration, I honestly don’t know what is. We are so familiar with the story of Christmas that I wonder whether we, myself included, really take the time to ponder, to marvel at the mystery which unfolded two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God, who made all that is, comes among us, taking flesh in the womb of a young girl through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that in His Son we might see and experience God and His love for us.

God comes among us not in power or splendour but as a weak, vulnerable child, depending on others for love, and food, and warmth, laid in an animal’s feeding trough, insulated from the cold hard stone by straw – beginning his life as he will end it placed in a stranger’s tomb.

Throughout his life all that Christ says and does shows us how much God loves us. The Word becomes flesh, and enters the world, he dwells among us, a wondrous mystery which provokes us to worship, to kneel with the shepherds and to adore the God who comes among us, who shares our human life so that we might share His divine life, not because we asked for it, not because we deserve it, we haven’t worked for it, or earned it, rather it is the free gift of a loving and merciful God, this then is the glory of God – being born in simple poverty, surrounded by outcasts, on the margins of society, to call humanity to a new way of being together, where the old order is cast aside, turning the world upside down and offering us the possibility of living in a radically different way, a way of peace and love and joy, not one of power. Heaven comes to earth, born in the womb of a Virgin, so that we might behold the glory of God in a new-born child. So that we might experience the love and truth of God.

The word is made flesh so that prophesy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might be dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem, where men and angels may sing together ‘Alleluia, Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ The worship of heaven is joined with earth on this most holy night, that in the quiet and stillness all the earth might be filled with the praises of Almighty God, who stoops to save humanity in the birth of His Son.

The Son who lives and dies and rises again for us will be here tonight under the outward forms of bread and wine so that the heavenly banquet may nourish our souls. He gives Himself so that we might share His Divinity, that God’s love can transform our human nature, having redeemed it in His Nativity. So let us come to sing his praises, and be nourished with His Body and Blood and experience here on earth the joy of Heaven and the closeness and the love of God, let it fill our souls with joy, and let us live lives which recognise the wondrous thing which happens tonight, that it may be a reality in our lives, that we may may proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Word made flesh, so that others may be drawn to kneel and worship like the shepherds, like the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

St John Chrysostom on the Incarnation

nativitycardBEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature.

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ¡in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infants food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

Advent IV (Year C)

bvm-visitation-web‘God does not love us because we are loveable of and by ourselves, but because he has put his own love into us. He does not even wait for us to love; his own love perfects us. Letting it do this with no resistance, no holding back for fear of what our egotism must give up, is the one way to the peace that the world can neither give nor take away’

Fulton J. Sheen Lift up your Heart

The fulfilment of prophesy is the great hope of Israel in times of tribulation, it speaks of their relationship with a loving God. The prophet Micah, after the destruction of Samaria, looks back to David of the tribe of Ephraim, to look forward to the saviour who will save Israel, who will be a true shepherd to his flock, one who will bring Peace. Whereas the first David sinned by sending a man to die: Uriah the Hittite, the husband of Bathsheba, the second of David will go to his death willingly to save from their sins even those who kill him. Prophecy is fulfilled, humanity is restored, and the peace of God’s kingdom can be brought about. His coming forth is from old from ancient days. Our salvation is both the fulfilment of prophesy and the outworking of God’s love. This is what we are preparing to celebrate

In the letter to the Hebrews we see the prophecy of Psalm 40:6-8 ‘In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”’ fulfilled in Christ. The sacrifices of the old covenant are replaced in the new covenant with the sacrifice of God for humanity: sacrifice is fulfilled and completed, once and for all. It is this sacrifice, which the church, through its priests of the new covenant pleads and re-presents: the eternal offering of a sinless victim, to free humanity of its sins, to restore our relationship with God and one another. It is an act of perfect obedience: the body prepared by God for Christ will do his will and will sanctify humanity: heal us and restore us.

In this morning’s Gospel Mary does not tell Elizabeth that she is pregnant. But by the power of the Holy Spirit John the Baptist, the forerunner, the last of the prophets announces the coming of the saviour by leaping of the joy in his mother’s womb. It’s important, there’s no time to waste: Mary arose and went with haste. Time is of the essence, for us too, not for the frantic fulfilment of consumerism: last-minute presents, or enough food to satisfy even the most gluttonous, no, we have to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, so that Christ may be born again in us, so that we may live his life and proclaim his truth to the world.

Through the prompting of her son and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth can cry ‘Blesséd are you among women, and blesséd is the fruit of your womb!’ She recognises that Mary’s obedience, her humble ‘Yes’ to God undoes the sinfulness of Eve. That she who knew no sin might give birth to Him who would save us and all humanity from our sin. It is through the love and obedience of Mary that God’s love and obedience in Christ can be shown to the world, demonstrated in absolute perfection, when for love of us he opens his arms to embrace the world with the healing love of God. He will be the good Shepherd, laying down his life for his flock that we may dwell secure. We prepare to celebrate Christmas because it points us to the Cross and beyond, in showing us once and for all that God loves us, how much he does, and why he does. It is this trust and confidence in a loving God which means that Mary can sing her great song of praise, the Magnificat: a song of joy, and trust in in a God who can turn the world around. It is a song of revolution, which turns the established order of sin and human power on its head: God’s way is different, it is the way of suffering love, of self-giving, it is truly revolutionary, and it still has the power to change the world two thousand years after it was first sung with joy.

Safe in the knowledge that God loves us, that he feeds us with word and sacrament, that he heals us, let us love God and love one another, truly, deeply, with all our lives. Let us prepare the greatest gift we can, ourselves:  that this Christmas Christ may truly be born in us, that as the Sanctified People of God, we may live that goodness, that holiness, that charity, which reflects the bountiful goodness of God who gives himself to be born and to die and rise again that we might truly live and have life in all its fullness, sharing the joy and the love of God with everyone we meet, safe in the knowledge that he has the power to change the world through us. As he will come to be our judge let us live His life, proclaim his saving love and truth to a world hungry for meaning and love and thereby honour God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and co-eternal Trinity, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

A Thought from St John of the Cross

Whoever loves another does so according to his own attributes and properties. Therefore since the Lord the Bridegroom is within you and is all powerful, he gives you power and loves you with the same.

Since he is wise he loves you with wisdom

Since he is good he loves you with goodness

Since he is holy he loves you with holiness

Since he is just he loves you with justice

Since he is merciful he loves you with mercy

Since he is compassionate and understanding he loves you with gentleness and sweetness

He loves you with the greatest humility and the deepest respect, making himself your equal and making you his equal. He joyfully reveals his face to you saying to you, ‘I am yours, completely yours. And my happiness is to be who I am so that I may give myself to you and be all yours.’

Advent III

It is easy to find the truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it …. The only people who ever arrive at a knowledge of God are those who, when the door is opened, accept that truth and shoulder the responsibilities it brings. It requires more courage than brains to learn to know God: God is the most obvious fact of human experience, accepting him is one of the most arduous

Fulton J. Sheen Lift up your Heart

In the Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising and the people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation. Some 2000 years later we find ourselves asking very much the same question, ‘What then shall we do?’ The world, the state, the church all seem to be in a mess. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.
Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God, the God who is in our midst, a mighty one who will save us; he will rejoice over us with gladness; he will quieten us by his love. In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless. We prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our saviour and our judge, daunting though this may be, in the knowledge and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed.
We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, since the Lord God is our strength and our song and has become our salvation. We draw living water, the water of baptism, which saves us. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all I hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.
We are to rejoice, because as S. Paul reminds the Galatians joy is a fruit of the spirit. As the people who have received the spirit in the sacrament of baptism, of confirmation, or indeed of holy order, our joy in the Lord should set our hearts on fire, with love for him and each other; we shouldn’t worry about anything, but instead we should trust in God: the God whose peace surpasses all understanding.
We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may quieten us with his love.
The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.
It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom
We can just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us, and that we are to do the same to each other. That in this and all things we may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

For you preserved the Most Blessed Virgin Mary
from all stain of original sin,
so that in her, endowed with the rich fullness of your grace,
you might prepare a worthy Mother for your Son
and signify the beginning of the Church,
his beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle.
She, the most pure Virgin, was to bring forth a Son,
the innocent Lamb who would wipe away our offences;
you placed her above all others
to be for your people an advocate of grace
and a model of holiness.