Christmas is a time when opposites meet. We know joy, and celebration, the enjoyment of family and company. And yet we also know the sadness of loved ones no longer here; of loneliness; of eating alone, or of eating in a happy company and yet going home alone. And the memories of happy Christmases past, can make us happy or fill us with regret at this Christmas present.
The Shepherds saw many things in opposition that first Christmas night. The country, and the town. The darkness of the night sky on a hillside – and the brilliance as the sky exploded into light. The silence of the fields – and the praises of an unexpected horde of angels. They leave the glory of God shining on the hill – they head, not to a palace but to a house or a stable or a shed – and they find the glory of God, shining so much more brightly, in the presence of a tiny child. The Maker of the universe is sleeping in a cradle borrowed from the farm animals.
There in that manger lies Mary’s son. And Mary knows that the hopes and joy and fears that that tiny frame carries. Anyone who’s had a child knows that clash of opposing feelings when you see them asleep. The pride, and the happiness and the care and love. And yet the concern that they stay well. The fear that something might happen. The way you have to go sometimes – and look at your sleeping child – and wait and listen in silence, just to make sure they’re breathing.
But this child carries not just Mary’s hopes and fears – but those of the world. The joy that God has come down to earth, that God is with us. The hope of knowing that God is going to walk lanes and high roads of the cities and fields of this battered world of ours. And yet God also has his fears – the things that Mary doesn’t know. That the tiny hands that grasp her finger when she puts it playfully in his palm – that one day they will be nailed to a cross. That today she cradles her beautiful, perfect baby boy – and one day she will hold his dead, shattered body.
In that room, many opposites meet. Heaven kisses earth, just as Mary kisses her holy son. Heaven comes down to earth – and God’s fullness is seen in that tiny boy, far exceeding the carolling of the angels. And birth meets death. All humans die – it’s what we do. But this child – this child is born to die. And in dying, to give God’s life to his dying world.
And the shepherds – they came looking for a baby and they found one. But they find their own shepherd.
Shortly we will bring these contradictions together – in the Creed, as we remember that the immortal God became a mortal human being. And in the Mass, as we celebrate tonight the birth of our saviour – by calling to mind his death. We remember that our shepherd – the shepherd of our souls – was also the pure and innocent sacrifice, the holy Lamb of God.
But for you tonight – how do you respond? If you already know Jesus as your God, then give thanks as we celebrate his birth and death and his rising from the death. Sing your praises knowing that he has made his home in you. That he breathes his Spirit in you. That the glory of God that the angels radiated and that terrified the shepherds – that is glowing in you.
And if you don’t – maybe you think God is too distant, too holy – too much like God, in fact. Well, Mary was not too unimportant for God to be her son. Bethlehem was not too small for him to be born there. A manger was not too scruffy for God to sleep in. A tax-collector was not traitor enough that he couldn’t be Jesus’ friends. Fishermen were not too sweaty and smelly to be his disciples. A cross was not too much disgrace for him to bear. And a grave was not final enough to hold him.
He’ll live in your heart today. He won’t worry if you’re not very good at theology. He won’t mind if your life’s not good enough. He’s not going to wait for you to clean up your act – because he knows that if he has to wait that long, then he may be able to wait forever but you can’t. He’ll take you as you are. He’ll fill your life with his Spirit. And he’ll give you the Christmas joy that lasts all year and for always.
Christmas is a time when opposites meet. Earth and heaven meet. Death and life meet. Joy and sorrow meet. And the God who made space and time, who holds the universe in his hands, becomes a helpless child. Happy Christmas.