Christ is Born!
“It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold: “Peace on earth, good will to men, from heaven's all-gracious King.’ The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.”
There isn’t enough poetry in the world to capture the spirit of Christmas, and the remembrance of that day when heaven was born on earth. But each year, when the carols begin to play, they have a way of penetrating into our hearts. Despite the bustles in the malls and the news reports on television, these old hymns cast a hush on the world that refuses to be overpowered. In the dead of winter, we hear these same songs, and they trigger something within us, a quiet, a stillness, maybe just a little wonder.
Silent night. Holy night. All is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.
You can reach out, for one fleeing moment, and feel the holiness of Christmas. But then it passes so quickly.
Is the night sacred, or is that just a dream? Is the quiet real, or is it just a figment of the imagination, “an undigested bit of beef…a crumb of cheese,” as Scrooge once said? Sometimes we get a dim glimpse into what Christmas really is, but then it vanishes like a breeze of air. In the busy and exciting world that we live in, Christmas can feel trivial. What is one day, one service, compared to all the progress of society and demands of routine? It comes and goes, so what of it? There’s never been such a paradox in the history of men or in our own lives here and now. Christmas is an absurdity, from one perspective, or it is the most awesome and majestic miracle that’s ever happened, and calls the world to stop and listen.
God is born from the womb of a virgin, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid to rest in a manger.
Philosophers then and now ask the question, “Where is God?” “If He’s so great, so powerful, then where is He in our noise and our pain?” And we all wonder at moments why the chasm between us and God feels so great. God, just like Christmas, can seem passing, distant, so quiet that you’re not sure you heard Him.
The world and the heart search for God day and night. But when He finally arrives, He comes in a tiny cave, surrounded by barn animals, laying on hay, and small enough to be held in your hands.
No one would ever be fool enough to make up this story. Who would ever imagine such a thing?
Why not reveal Himself in grandeur and power? After all, isn’t this what we admire? We build skyscrapers and yet He makes a manger His home. We look up to the men with the finest suits, and yet He arrives in swaddling clothes. We respect strength and productivity, and yet He comes helpless, with tiny arms and a tender voice.
As sentimental as Christmas can be, it should really shake us. It jars with everything.
It certainly shook the heavens. The angels appeared in their beauty, and sang out: “Glory to God in the highest.” But here, again, we have to wonder. If the heavens will open in this way, why not do so in the streets and towers for all to see. The angels didn’t go out to the politicians, the scientists, or the scholars looking for answers. Instead, they appeared to a group of poor shepherds, herding their sheep in the fields.
God comes, but He is so small and quiet, and the world hardly notices.
There was once a preacher in Nazi Germany, who pondered over the disparity between the world around him and the message of Christmas. He lived in a booming society, with the greatest technology and the smartest scientists (or so they considered themselves). The wise men of his generation aspired to create a world of supermen, not too unlike our own generation. And yet, in the midst of all of this, when Christmas came, the quiet message in church was not about a superman, but about a tiny baby nestled in hay, surrounded by shepherds.
This preacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was eventually martyred because he chose the baby over the superman. And he had something very important to say about Christmas:
“Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness…Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.”
On Christmas day, the Light of God is born on earth. But it is lit in darkness.
On Christmas day, the King of Kings reveals Himself. But He comes in poverty.
On Christmas day, the gap between heaven and earth is torn open and God appears, but in the midst of a cold, silent night.
Only those who are quiet enough, still enough, and low enough are able to find Him. The rest of the world is too busy to notice. But for those who do, they see that nothing was ever so beautiful or so good that was born in the universe.
St. Augustine once explained: “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full- there’s nowhere for Him to put it.”
But a day did come when God found a place to put His gift. It was in a tiny manger in Bethlehem. There, in the poverty and emptiness and silence of the manger, our Lord found a place worthy to make His throne.
What do we make of this?
The mystery of our Lord’s birth is a roadmap to find Him. It reminds us, each year, that we too must step out and enter into that Silent Night and Holy Night.
Away from the noise in the world, our busy-ness, and our obsessions, in the quiet of the manger, there we can find God.
In our poverty and suffering, that is where God waits us. In our lowliness, our brokenness, and first and foremost, our smallness – that is where God can be born. He comes to everyone yearning to give the greatest gift, but it’s only when we empty our hands that we’ll be able to receive Him.
The beauty of Christmas is that we don’t ever have to leave it.
Each year this day comes and reminds us of the Silent Night and the Holy Night so long ago in Bethlehem. But we can enter that silence and holiness every time we say our prayers, every time we walk outdoors, and every time we see another human face, we’re given the opportunity to become quiet and loving – and at that moment Christ is born for us.
Christmas is about God’s coming to us, and the way we choose to receive Him.
And there’s a further message still in all this. It is not just about God’s coming as a baby long ago, nor solely about His coming in our hearts each moment we welcome Him. Christmas is about His coming yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The four weeks of advent, so often ignored nowadays, are meant to prepare our hearts so that when God comes we will want Him. Advent is the night of the Virgins waiting by the door of their Lord’s bedchamber. When He comes some are ready and others are not. Advent is a mirror of our whole life, or rather our whole life is an advent: one, brief season of waiting and preparing.
If you remember, in the first Gospel reading in Advent, we heard our Lord warn His disciples of the final days. “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars,” He said, “and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea, and the waves roaring: men's hearts failing them for fear…And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory… when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh.” On that day, we will all be given the treasure of our heart. What is it that we desire most? For those whose treasure is the world then the Lord’s coming is a fearful thing. His light is too bright. But for those whose treasure is the heavenly life, then the Lord’s arrival means joy and bliss.
The angels sang on that midnight clear, “Peace on earth.” And we should wonder today what this means, when there is, after all, so little peace on earth. But Christmas is merely the dawn that promises a sunrise. Peace was born on earth that day, and peace thrives wherever men and women carry the Lord in their hearts, but the promise of peace given on the first Christmas morn is a promise of what’s yet to come for all who fix their hearts on God.
So what is it about those old hymns that wake hope and wonder in our breasts?
Perhaps it’s because we all know, deep inside, that the first Christmas day when our Lord was born as a baby is the same day when that baby will return in Might and Power. Christmas is the story of the Alpha and the Omega - the beginning and end of everything.
So, when Christmas day is over, and the New Year begins, hold onto this vision. The sun has already started to rise.
In your joys and sorrows, success and failures, day and night, remember:
Christ is Born! Christ is with us! Christ is Coming!