‘An angel of the Lord appeared to [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:9-11) The angel speaks of ‘good news of great joy … for everyone.’ On hearing this good news do feel this great joy? … any joy? In our first reading the Prophet Isaiah explains how we should be feeling: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.’ (Isaiah 9:2. C.f.: John 1:4-5) Imagine yourself living in some very dark place: you can’t see your hand in front of your face; you keep bumping into things, falling into and falling over things you did not know were there. Then, there in that great darkness, someone turns on a light! The relief you feel at the release from blindness; I can see! … all that brilliant colour, all those marvellous shapes, the wonder of comprehending a world that previously you could only feel your way around — this is the kind joy we should feel at the good news of this night. Isaiah likens it to the joy one has in an abundant ‘harvest’; or, the joy soldiers might feel when peace is finally declared; or, the joy hard-pressed slaves might feel when they are suddenly released from their lot and they are set free. (Isaiah 9:3-5) The joy of this night Isaiah captures rather well: “For a child has been born—for us! The gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counsellor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. He’ll rule on the throne of his ancestor David over that promised kingdom. He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
But, I guess, it can be a little hard to get worked up over the birth of a child some two thousand years ago, and especially when we look around our world with all its problems and it seems little different, and privately we begin to wonder: “What difference did his birth make? Where is the light?” Well, the darkness of our world is not so different to that of those two disciples (c.f.: Luke 23:44- 45) who walked away sad and gloomy from Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified: “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free” (Luke 24:21); their light had gone out. And yet they came to ‘see’ in this darkness: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32); with a little help from Jesus, they were able to rekindle their hope.
What is our hope? What is it that we need to be set free from? The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12) This good news is not just for the shepherds, nor just for the people of their day, but for ‘all people,’ and that includes us … and even those who are still to come. The child lying in the manger is given as a sign that we might take to heart what is being said. Signs point to something else; it is not about the sign. Our Gospel begins: ‘In happened in those days a decree went out …’. (Luke 2:1. C.f.: 1:5) That is, this story does not begin with ‘Once upon a time …,’ but ‘In those days’ — it happened; this is a real story, not just some myth, of what God did in historical time. So, if we accept this to be true, what we have in the birth of Jesus is a sign that points to the coming of a Saviour who is Christ the King. (Luke 2:11. C.f.: 23:2)
Well, just the other week at the end of Ordinary Time, when the Church’s year came to an end and just before Advent’s new beginning, we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. This Feast of Christmas near the beginning of the Church’s year points to that Feast at the other end of it, in the fullness of time, so to speak, by reminding us that we wait for the coming of our true King who will come to establish a real peace that will last forever, for his Kingdom will have no end — unlike the Pax Romana, that period of peace and stability established under Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1), but which only lasted only for about two hundred years. As Christians, the birth of Jesus portends the coming of Christ our King; his coming gives birth to our hope and we long for it. But, as St Paul puts it: “Hope means that we must trust and wait for what is still unseen. For why would we need to hope for something we already have? So because our hope is set on what is yet to be seen, we patiently keep on waiting for its fulfilment.” (Romans 8:24-25) Christmas, then, becomes a time when we should once more be burnishing our hope. We do this by taking to heart the angel’s message to us on this night: “Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere! For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah.” (Luke 2:10-11) We do this in the face of all the world’s woes, along with its proclamation of a different gospel: No hope here! And so, we gird ourselves with a patient perseverance, which hunkers down to wait as ‘we eagerly expect’ the coming of our King.
This King, when he comes to establish his Kingdom, will say to those righteous in this world: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36) But when we look into our heart of hearts, we have reason to be nervous about this prospect. For, if we are honest, we know that on this score we do not always measure up, and we suspect we may not find ourselves among the righteous. With St Paul, we can only lament our own inability: “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19) It’s as though we live in another kingdom, a different kingdom, bound under a different law. (C.f.: Romans 7:23; 6:17-19) With Paul, we can only cry out: “Miserable man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
This Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today, had said to us while he was still with us: “You are sad now because I told you that I am going to the One who sent me … But it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:4-7) The fulfilment of this promise we celebrate at Easter, when the Resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19) ‘And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) When we see another, a good person, do the good he wants to do, we must know that this Holy Spirit, this promised Helper, has come upon him, making him a child of God (Romans 8:19), one like Jesus (c.f.: 1 John 3;2); he has been born again, so to speak. (John 3:3) In some senses, this is the child whose birth we long to see. (C.f.: Luke 2:1; Isaiah 9:6) For his coming among us proclaims our hope: if he, one just like me, can do the good he wants, so can I! For we, too, have been promised this same Helper … and we can go off happy. (C.f.: Matthew 13:44; Titus 2:11- 13) Because, as St Paul puts it: “For this hope we are saved.” (Romans 8:24) This is the joy we are to feel on this holy night. For this Jesus has come and saved us by sending his Holy Spirit upon us. (C.f.: Hebrews 7:25; Luke 23:34; Mark 15:37) And we, too, can aspire with confidence to become a child of God, one like Jesus, one who can do the good we want to do, one who will be welcomed by Christ our King into his Kingdom. (Romans 9:23; 1 John 3:2)