As the old film told us, ‘Christmas comes but once a year.’ But every year, when it comes around, we never tire of celebrating it. As each year goes by, we grow a little older and probably also a little wiser and our understanding and insight into Christmas hopefully grows ever deeper.
When we are children we wonder at the simple fact of the birth of a child. As we grow a little older, we might realise that this is no ordinary child, that here is someone special who brings hope to the world. In our teens we might think about the poverty that Jesus is born into and the meagreness of the tumble-down stable. Later on, we might reflect on the other events surrounding the birth of Jesus such as the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt and we might begin to realise that Christ’s life was in danger from the very start.
As we get a bit older and come to a better awareness of mankind’s sinful condition, we might come to the conclusion that humanity needs to be purified from our sins so that we can live a truly worthy life and that God sent his Son in order to bring this salvation about. Perhaps later still, we might see the shadow of the Cross reflected in the scene of the Nativity. If so, we will have come to the conclusion that this most innocent of all children was destined to die an ignominious death on the Cross of Calvary.
As we get a bit wiser, we begin to understand the contradiction of the Gospel. We realise that God does not operate in any kind of human way but instead chooses always to do the very opposite of what we would think to be right. We begin to realise that the birth of Jesus was made manifest to poor shepherds and an anonymous bunch of foreign travellers; essentially to nonentities. We also see very clearly that the authorities in Jerusalem were out to kill Jesus from the moment of his birth.
We start to draw the conclusion that the values of the Kingdom of God are completely opposite to the values of this world. While human beings tend to go after power, authority, recognition, wealth and glory, we realise that God is much more interested in simplicity, poverty, goodness, truth and justice. We understand that the simplicity of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth is no accident but rather a reflection of the way he intended to live his life.
So, as life goes on, we see more and more in the Nativity scene. We look at the various characters connected to the Birth of Jesus and we see that every one of them has a back-story. We recognise the importance of Mary and the great favour God granted her so that she could be a worthy vessel in order to bring Christ into the world. We see Joseph as an honourable man with a deep interior life. We observe how attentive he was to the dreams in which Angels told him what to do and we pay him honour for the fact that he observed God’s commands.
The simple shepherds in the fields are the first group of people who became aware of Christ’s birth and we realise therefore that it is primarily the poor among whom Jesus would exercise his ministry. We realise too that these poor creatures are destined for a high place in heaven if they but love and serve their Saviour.
Then there are the mysterious men from the east who travel many months and weeks to place their gifts before this tiny babe. These men from afar were, by whatever means, very sensitive to the signs God gave the world that a great Saviour was about to come among men to begin his work of redemption. We also understand by their presence that this redemption, this salvation, was not to be confined to the Chosen People but to be available to the whole world.
We even see the destiny of the donkey. We realise that, maybe not this exact donkey but one very similar, would have an appointment with Jesus thirty-three years later and carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem while the onlookers cried out ‘Hosanna’.
At our Carol Service on Sunday night, Sophie read a simple but beautiful poem by UA Fanthorpe which would be worth repeating as we consider the donkey’s task. It is entitled: What the Donkey Saw.
No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
We never cease to be moved by the Nativity scene. Whatever stage of life we are at we see different things in it. Each year we come to a deeper understanding of its significance. Each year we realise ever more deeply just how great a Saviour was born in that simple stable.
May God bless you all and may you have a happy and holy Christmas.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket