Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·
Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3
‘He became human so that we might become divine’
If you have seen any of the Star Wars films then you will be used to the idea of a world under the thumb of a despotic tyrannical regime. A world which longs for deliverance.Two thousand years ago the people of Israel were similarly in a bad way. They were occupied by a foreign power, Rome. They were part of a foreign empire, ruled by pagans. They longed to be free. All hope seemed lost. Their souls were crushed. Had God abandoned them? Their prophets had told them to expect the Messiah, who was an anointed Saviour of the house and lineage of David. He would save them, free them, give them hope, light in the darkness. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah looks forward to in tonight’s first reading. People knew the prophecy but could barely hope that they would see it fulfilled.
We are now in a very different situation: we can say with confidence that a child is born to us, the Son of God, born of the Blessèd Virgin Mary. This helpless baby is our Mighty God and the Prince of Peace, the Creator and Ruler of all that is, all that ever has been, and all that will be. This night, in a small hill town God comes among us, God is with us, Emmanuel.
And so, to comply with the Imperial census demands, Joseph and Mary travel to his ancestral home, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.’ (Micah 5:2-4).
Bethlehem in Hebrew means the House of Bread and in the House of Bread is born tonight the one who will be the Living Bread, come down from Heaven. He will be the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd of His people, Israel. We are told in the Gospel about shepherds out in the fields. They are raising the lambs to be used in the Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. When these lambs are born they are wrapped in strips of cloth to keep them safe, so that they may be without spot or blemish, and thus be an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. And so the One who is to save Israel from her sins, Yeshua, which means God saves, is born and treated like a Passover Lamb. He is wrapped in strips of cloth, swaddling clothes, just like the lambs on the hilltops. He is the Lamb of God, the true passover of Israel, who will go to His death willingly, led like a lamb to the slaughter. He was anticipated in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, by the ram caught in the thicket. He is born for us, the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.
The shepherds are greeted by angels who announce the Good News, that the prophecy is fulfilled, here and now. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. These hard-working farmers eagerly go to see God come to earth. God meets humanity not in a blaze of glory and triumph, but as a vulnerable new-born baby, who needs a mother to feed him, who needs others to provide him with warmth and security. The Word of God, through which everything was created, lies silent and helpless. Here we see real love – open, vulnerable, all gift, holding back nothing, but risking all to come among us, to heal our wounds, to save us, to show us how to live.
All the tinsel, and excess, all the consumerism, and even the ignorance and unbelief of the modern world cannot cover up the sheer wonder of this night. In the stillness and darkness something wonderful happens, which we cannot fully understand. God comes among us, born as a baby, to share our life, so that we might share His. Our God longs for a relationship with us, and brings it about, so that we might have life in and through Him.
The Son gives us a life in which to live. He offers up himself for us upon the Cross, where He dies for us. He gives himself to us under the signs of bread and wine so that we might share his divine life. As the shepherds hurried to meet him, let us too yearn for that divine encounter. Let us long to be fed by Him, fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we can share His life, life in all its fullness.
When the Holy Family came to Bethlehem the town was overcrowded. There was no room for them. The weather was cold, and we can speculate that their welcome was too. As we celebrate the birth of Our Saviour we have to ask ourselves: Have we made room for Jesus in our lives? Have we really? If we haven’t, then no fine words can make up for it. We have to let our hearts and our lives be the stable in which the Christ child can be born. We have to see Him in the outcast, in the stranger, in the people which the world shuns, and we have to welcome them, and in welcoming them to welcome Him. This is how we live out His love in our lives. This is the true meaning of Christmas – this is the love which can transform the world. It is radical and costly. It terrified the might of the Roman Empire, and showed human power that it was as nothing compared to Divine Love. Soul by individual soul, for the past two thousand years, the world has been changed by ordinary people living out the love shown to the world in this little vulnerable child.
So, tonight, let us receive the greatest gift which has ever been given and share it with others, living it out in our lives, regardless of the cost, so that the world may believe and sing the praise of 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. Happy Christmas