Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple.
Our culture pays little attention to the twelve days of Christmas, except for including the song of that name in holiday playlists in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We have already moved on to other things. Christmas trees are out at the streets waiting for pickup; the post-Christmas sales are on, and our focus is on college bowl games, the NFL playoff races, and the blockbuster movies playing in theatres.
For us in the church, the season of Christmas bids us to focus on the mystery of God becoming flesh and living among us. We are encouraged to celebrate and reflect on the incarnation, to explore its meaning for our faith, our lives, and the world in which we live.
As I have reflected this week on the meaning of Christ’s coming into the world, my thoughts have focused on two images or themes. The first is, of course, from today’s gospel reading, which is also always the gospel reading for Christmas Day—the profound, beautiful prologue of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The second image is of the creche, the nativity scene, especially our beloved creche, brought back by a Grace family from Italy in the late 19th century. Over the years, I have marveled at the beauty of the figures, the craftsmanship, and the fact that it has been kept largely intact for all of those years.
They are two very different images; one beauty in art, but at the same time, very down to earth, humble, reflective of the world, faith, and practice of the craftsmen who made it. The other, majestic, moving, transcendent; its language draws us outside of ourselves, outside of our place and world, into the mystery of creation and the mystery that is at the heart of God.
We may think of creches as things for children, kitschy, domestic accompaniments to our Christmas celebrations; an almost essential element of our holiday observance, but not necessarily of importance to our faith. I was surprised to learn that Pope Francis issued a pastoral letter on the significance of nativity scenes this year.
In that letter, Francis commends the nativity scene or creche as an aid to devotion, a way to enter more deeply into our faith. He has something to say about all of the various elements, not just the figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men, but also the scenery itself. The setting in nature, the presence of sheep and cattle, remind us that all creation rejoices in the coming of the Messiah.
But the creche, Pope Francis writes, is not merely an object to be observed. It invites us to enter into the story. We do that by including figures from daily life. In Italian presepe, whole villages are often depicted, with craftsmen in their shops, perhaps taverns or restaurants full of life.
Francis writes, reflecting on the fact that St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with the creation of the first nativity scene,
“the nativity scene has invited us to “feel” and “touch” the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross. It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”
The creche invites us to enter into and imagine ourselves in the scene of Jesus’ birth, to experience with the senses of our mind the humble setting of Jesus’ birth. In that way, it is a powerful witness against our culture’s efforts to coopt and commercialize Christmas.
But Francis reminds us too, that the nativity scene is not the end of the story. In its poverty, simplicity, and humbleness, it is already a first step on the road to the cross.
The nativity scene in its simple beauty can also bring to mind the wonder and amazement we experienced as children at Christmas. It’s easy for us to become jaded and cynical especially in the midst of the turmoil of the world and the busy-ness of our lives. But the creche invites us to remember and recapture the excitement and wonder that we knew as children, to draw close and enter into, to experience the story of Jesus’ birth again.
From the poverty, humility and simplicity of the creche, to the majesty and beauty of John’s prologue. The story of Jesus’ birth is the story of God becoming human, becoming one of us. We see God becoming a weak, vulnerable, dependent human, taking on our flesh in all of its weakness and frailty. This great paradox, this mystery of our faith, It’s quite incomprehensible: the fact that God emptied Godself to become one of us; that God in all of God’s majesty and power stooped to take on human flesh.
To return to the gospel, as we hear these majestic, poetic phrases; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we are invited to allow our minds to wander and wonder into the great divine mystery, to explore the connections between ourselves as created beings, and the God who created us. We are invited to imagine back to the beginning of time, and to imagine outward to the ends of the ever-expanding universe, to its vastness, its beauty, its transcendence.
But then John brings us back to earth, to ourselves and to our world. John brings us back to the creche, to Bethlehem: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Greek here means literally “tented” or “tabernacled.” It’s likely that John wants us to think back to the Exodus, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and the tabernacle or tent that was the place where God was present with them throughout that period of wandering. Now Jesus, the Incarnate Word is that presence or tabernacle. But there’s another important point being made; that God’s presence among us is not fixed or permanent, or solid. God is present among us as frail, weak human flesh, not as a statue or a building made of stone. In human flesh, in its weakness and vulnerability, we encounter God.
We encounter God most clearly and most profoundly in those places where we see Jesus at his weakest and most vulnerable—in the manger as an infant, and on the cross, as he dies.
For all the majesty and wonder expressed in the opening verses of John’s gospel, the true power of the Word becomes clear when the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. As John continues, here we see God’s glory made manifest. In the creche, at the cross, we see God’s glory.
To see and know Christ, the Word, in the babe in a manger, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ in the cross, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ, to taste Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, is to see and know God’s glory.
May we experience, may we see and know the glory of God today, in our lives, and in the world around us, in the Christ made flesh in a manger and as we kneel at the altar. May we know and believe the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love for us, today at Christmas, and throughout our lives. Amen.