The many hundreds who attend All Saints' for the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve come for a variety of reasons. Some come in search of the true Christmas spirit and to join in the singing of the age old carols. Some come to be with their loved ones or to make their Christmas Communion on one of the most holy nights of the year. For whatever reason people crowd into our ancient and modern Church they are always most welcome.
Those who come to hear again the familiar Christmas story are often surprised by the Gospel the Church chooses to be read on Christmas Eve. It's from what we call 'The Prologue', the opening words of St. John. For in this Christmas Gospel there is no mention of the shepherds, the stable, the angels, the star or the wise men, just the awesome truth of it all, 'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us'. I often find it helpful to reflect on the different ways in which the four Gospel writers celebrate the mystery of the incarnation.
Mark's Gospel, probably the earliest to be written, totally ignores the story of Jesus' birth. He begins his telling of the Good News with the arrival in the desert of the somewhat eccentric forerunner, John the Baptist. For Mark, the mystery of the incarnation is more to do with the ministry of Jesus, whom he calls the 'Son of Man'.
In contrast, Matthew, probably writing sometime later, gives us the account of Mary's miraculous pregnancy and the dilemma faced by her fiancé, Joseph. In his telling of the birth we read about the star, the despot King Herod and the visit to the stable of the Wise Men with their three gifts of mystic meaning.
In Luke's Gospel we read of the visit to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and of the enforced journey, with Joseph, to Bethlehem where there was 'no room at the inn' for the saviour of the world. Luke tells of the shepherds and the angels who sang about 'Peace on earth'.
Though St. John probably knew the story of Christ's birth very well he condenses the event into one magnificent affirmation of faith, 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.' In so doing he gives us an entirely different perspective on the mystery of Christ's birth. Matthew and Luke record the details of the story, as if in microcosm. John's view is in macrocosm, in its cosmic and eternal glory.
John gives us this bigger picture to show what God is doing in the world, now and always, and not just in a tiny backwater of a place in a world long ago. He asserts the truth that Christ is 'God with us'. He affirms how our incarnational faith is about revelation, God making himself known to humankind. The infant Jesus is not just another of the billions of babies born in the long years of our history, he is the human face of God. He is what God means by 'man', and he is what we know as 'God.' Reflecting on the opening words of John's Gospel helps to bring a proper perspective to our Christmas celebrations.
In all the frenzied activity during the run up to Christmas, and in our celebration of the big day itself, it's all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. We try to ensure that no-one is forgotten; we wrap the presents; decorate our homes; prepare the feast. Yet, two thousand years on, Christ still finds 'no room at the inn' in many a heart and home.
The world might do its best to secularise the great festival of 'Christmas', but followers of the incarnate Christ are called to go further, to make that leap of faith, to enter into the profound mystery of it all.
If we let him, John's telling of the Christmas event will lead us closer to the awesome truth; that in Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell; in Christ, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. May we, like John, behold his glory this Christmas-tide, and like him, lead others to the light of Christ.
Nadolig Llawen - Happy Christmas