|The crib is St Anne's Chapel.|
Each year there is a preoccupation about the single that will lead the pop charts over the Christmas period. In recent years there has been a campaign to stop the winner of the X factor becoming the Christmas Number 1. This year has seen the same race to number one, and the winners are a group of army wives whose husbands and loved ones are serving in Afghanistan. The words of that song are taken from the letters of these women to their husbands
Wherever you are my love will keep you safe
My love will build a bridge of love across time and space.
These love letters are marked by tenderness and longing. These words promise a love with depth and certainty. The letters of these women ache with separation and desire.
Words have an incredible power. With words we can affirm and build up, we can belittle and humiliate, we can reach pt or push away. With words we can express our deepest desires and open windows on our dreams. Words have a supreme importance in our humanity.
In scripture God speaks to us. He communicates his love, his plans, his dreams and his concern for his people. When we fall away from God, he speaks through his prophets to bring us back to him. The Old Testament is a continual cycle of God loving us in spite of the fact that we turn away, that we are unfaithful, that we are easily distracted, that we seek fulfilment elsewhere. The words of scripture are full of promise. God promising us that he loves us, that we are his own, that we are cherished. We need to hear these promises but we also need to experience them.
So, are words enough, or do we need something more tactile, more embracable.
The people of Israel wanted to experience the promise that God was speaking to them. They would know God’s favour by experiencing his smile, ‘Let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.’ (Psalm 80.3). When we think of salvation, then it maybe in terms of being let off punishment and having sins forgiven. But for the Old Testament, it was more human. It was God looking at us with love. The oldest Biblical text is a bit of leather on which is written these words: ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’ (Numbers 6. 24 – 26).
God’s face became flesh in the face of Jesus. The Word of God becomes flesh and blood and lives among us. At Christmas we celebrate the Word becoming flesh and embracing humanity … and humanity being able to embrace God. To hold him. At Christmas we remember that God became vulnerable, utterly within our power, totally dependant on the love, care and concern of others. But this does not exactly fulfil our expectations
What the world expected was a superstar, someone with the talent, sharpness, and raw muscle-power to out-gun everything that's bad on this planet, someone charismatic enough to make everyone who opposes him slink away in defeat. God's answer to that: A baby lying helpless in the straw!
Why? Why would God choose to be born into the world in this way?
Because you can't argue with a baby! Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You, on your part, have to coax everything out of them, be it a smile or a word, and that effort, which demands great patience, usually draws out what's best in you. Moreover, you can't push at a baby too hard, it will begin to cry and the moment is over.
And that is the child who was born in Bethlehem, and that is too how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not intimidate anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. Pope Benedict, preaching in 2006 puts it like this
“God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child.”
The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less: innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, silence us, teach us patience, and summon what's best in us. We watch our language around a baby in the same way as we watch our language in a church, with good reason.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby, it under whelms in such a way so as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charism, unstoppable force: If you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, who ultimately would be the stronger? The boxer could kill the baby, but, no doubt, wouldn't, precisely because something inside the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, the message of Christmas.
This Christmas we remember that love letter from God that becomes flesh –
My heart will build a bridge of love across both time and space