CHRISTMAS DAY – COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 52:7-10; HEBREWS 1:1-6; JOHN 1:18
THE MAGNIFICENT PASSAGE you have just heard is from the opening of John’s Gospel. There is no mention of Bethlehem, of Mary, of shepherds, or the stable and the manger, so why do we read this Gospel for Christmas Day?
The Bethlehem story, of course, was told during last night’s Mass at midnight. But today we are, as it were, going behind the scenes, and looking at the deeper meaning of that story. After all, who is that little baby, so small, so helpless? And why do we make such a fuss about his birth?
He is the Word of God. From the beginning he was with God and WAS God. Think of those extraordinary words as you gaze at the stable or the crib.
Through the Word, God expresses his very self, just as in an analogous way we reveal ourselves through the way we speak and what we say. (And sometimes we reveal just as much by what we do NOT say!) But God’s Word does not just communicate; God’s Word is active – it is a verb rather than a noun. It makes, it produces, it creates.
Again, in an analogous way we can speak of the “word” of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the “word” of Shakespeare in Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, or the “word” of Beethoven in the Fifth Symphony – all these do far more than express ideas, they have a powerful impact in changing us.
So through this Word “all things came to be”, to this Word we and our whole world owe our very existence.
Light in darkness
At this time our city and homes are filled with light, guiding us through the dark valleys of our lives. It is no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated in the depth of winter, just after the winter solstice, as we look forward in hope to the longer days of light and the new life ready to burst forth. Jesus will say later that he is “the Light of the world”. Today’s Gospel says that the Light shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overpower it. It is in this hope that we long to see the darkness of our world put to flight.
Alas! “He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not recognise him.” “He came to his own place and his own people did not accept him”. For the “Word was made flesh and lived among us.” It does not say the Word became a human being but “flesh”. In John’s language, “flesh” refers to all that is weak and sinful in our human nature.
The Word came and was fully inserted into that world. ‘World’ has two meanings in John’s writings. It means, first of all, the world in general, our planet and all that is in it. But it also refers to that part of our human world which is caught up in all that is evil, negative, degrading and dehumanising. The Word entered both of these worlds. He did not live on the fringe but in the very centre of human activity. This caused difficulties for some religious people who found it disturbing that Jesus “mixed with sinners and [even worse] ate with them”. All this is being said in the Bethlehem story but in more concrete, image-filled language.
In touch with God
As the letter to the Hebrews (Second Reading) tells us today, God in the past spoke to us through many prophets and other spokespersons. But now “he has spoken to us through his Son” – because the Son is the Word of God. This Son is the “radiant light of God’s glory” and “the perfect copy of his nature”.
In seeing all that Jesus says and does we are being put in touch with the very nature of God. Born in utter simplicity without many of the conveniences of life that we would take for granted and regard as essential, away from home, rejected by every place of shelter in the town, visited by ‘shepherds’ who were despised outcasts (the “Gypsies” or illegal immigrants of their day). A good exercise would be to locate the birth of Jesus in a corresponding situation in our city today.
It is important to be aware that this scene is not just for pious contemplation; it contains a message. God has become a human person like us; he has come to live and work among us. He has entered our world to bless it and to liberate all those enslaved by oppression, by hunger and homelessness, enslaved by addictive habits and substances, enslaved by fear, anger, resentment, hatred, loneliness…
Let us pray that we may approach this Child to be liberated from our particular enslavement. (We are all slaves to something!)
But, more than that, as brothers and sister of Jesus, we are called to work together with him, to help others break the chains of their enslavements, so that, in the words of Isaiah today (First Reading), “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God”.