The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about ninety miles, with some fairly large hills involved. It would probably have taken Mary and Joseph ten days to travel there, walking with a donkey. It was a huge effort: in order to be with family, and to comply with the demands of the census. Amidst the joy and the wonder of this holy night it is good to begin by pondering the fact that the Holy Family were tired, even before the Blessed Virgin Mary went into labour. Tonight is a time for many emotions: joy, wonder, love and fear, as we celebrate God working among us.
The prophet Isaiah in tonight’s first reading speaks of a future centred upon the birth of a royal baby. It is a message of hope, a light shining in the darkness, which looks forward to the star of Bethlehem, announcing the birth to the world. The boy will free us from burdens and break the rod of our oppressor. The wonderful mystery which we celebrate here tonight is that through Jesus Christ sin will have no power over us. He will bear our burden on the Cross. Christ is born for us so that He may die for us. His life begins lying against the wood of the manger, as it will end against the wood of the Cross. This is the justice and righteousness to which Isaiah looks forward: a God whose entire life and being proclaim the love of God. Christ is the true son of David, a Wonderful Counsellor, in Him God shows His true might, the Eternal Son show us the heart of love of the Everlasting Father, Christ is the Prince of Peace, as He gives us peace from God, not human peace, but something far more wonderful. All that Isaiah proclaims is made manifest tonight in this little child. The world can never be the same.
St Paul writes to Titus to remind him that God’s grace has been revealed. Her tonight we see the kindness of God in giving His only Son to be born for us, making the salvation of the human race possible. Christ gave Himself for us, to redeem us from sin. Here tonight God is born as a baby, so that humanity might become divine. This is generosity on a scale we can hardly imagine, because God’s love is so all-encompassing, so utterly wonderful. As we celebrate His coming in the flesh we also look forward to His Second Coming, when our Saviour will return. We are to prepare for this by celebrating the mystery of our salvation, and allowing it to transform our lives.
So the King of Israel, the Saviour of the World is born not in a palace, but surrounded by farm animals. As Isaiah prophesied, at the very start of his prophecy: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib’ (Isa 1:3 ESV). So the animals kneel to honour their Creator, born in their midst. ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ].
Meanwhile out in the fields there are shepherds, looking after their sheep. Jerusalem is only six miles away, and these are the sheep needed for Passover, and other Jewish festivals. Shepherds are interesting in that David, Israel’s second king was one, and scripture talks of God shepherding His people Israel. The Messiah, the saviour, is prophesied in terms of a shepherd. St Matthew quotes the prophet Micah: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt 2:6 ESV quoting Micah 5:2). An angel comes to the shepherds to tell them the wondrous news which has just taken place. They are afraid, terrified in fact, and rightly so. It is so completely out of the ordinary. We have so domesticated this pastoral scene that we forget that here we have ordinary people faced with an angel and the glory of God, something so amazing that humans cannot bear to look at it. It’s too bright, too wonderful. And there’s not just one angel, but a multitude of the heavenly host, an army of angels, thousands of them, more than you can count, singing the praise of Almighty God. The worship of heaven comes down to earth for a moment to celebrate this wonderful event. Words cannot describe it, though we will get close to it this night as we celebrate the Eucharist. For here too heaven and earth will meet, and Christ who is the living bread come down from heaven, born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, will take bread so that it may become His Body, to feed us, so that we might share His divine life.
It’s a radical action, which turns our world upside down. Ours is a God who shows strength and power in His weakness, in His dependance upon others, to show us what true kingship is really like. Whereas Caesar claims the title Augustus, literally one who is worthy of honour, the one worthy of true honour is born not in Rome, but in Bethlehem. As the angel announces to the shepherds, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11 ESV). Jesus is our saviour, not some Roman Emperor. He is the Messiah, the one who can save us and all humanity, and he is lying not in a cot in a palace, but in a manger, surrounded by animals. God defies human expectations, and human understanding, to do something wonderful, and unexpected, because this is what the Kingdom of God looks like: it turns our human world on its head. The Son of God is born in a stable, and adored by shepherds. The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed its truth, that God is with us, is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world that longs for healing and wholeness. Tonight the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels in giving praise 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.