Today we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. This night the Church holds up a helpless, little child as the image of our Saviour. In the morning it has a different take on the mystery we celebrate tonight: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word, the true light that enlightens humankind, was coming into the world. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we saw his glory.” (John 1:1, 9, 14) In the image of a little child, though we see vulnerability, we also recognise promise. But what can we see in ‘The Word’? I think a helpful clue can be found in the parable of The Sower, for there Jesus tells, “What the sower is sowing is the Word.” (Mark 4:14) In that parable we are told: “As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:4-8) The Word, like sown seed, is also all vulnerability and promise.
… all vulnerability and Promise — if the promise is to be fulfilled, the vulnerability must be protected. In St Matthew’s Gospel, shortly after The Nativity story, we are told the story of The Flight into Egypt: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.” (Matthew 2:13) There are those who do not care about the promise, who would prey on the vulnerable (Mark 4:4), gobbling them up ‘as though they were eating bread,’ as the Psalm puts it. (Psalm 14:4) If we cannot protect it, we too, may need to flee to some place where it can grow and flourish — just as, for instance, we see these days the steady exodus of Christians from many Middle Eastern countries.
The parable of The Sower also makes this point, that sometimes it is the very environment we have to live in that is the threat: the soil is too thin and the sun too hot. (Mark 4:6) This is our world, which today is somewhat hostile to the promise we celebrate as given us on this day. Pope John Paul called it a culture of death, for it is hostile to the life that is promised. For the promise of life to come to fruition, we have to do what we can to shield it from the worst excesses of overexposure to the toxic, and to counter what we cannot keep out by watering and nurturing it, so to speak, to stop it from withering away. Then, there are not only external threats that can and do threaten what is vulnerable; there are internal ones as well. For the Word to take root and blossom in us we need to spend some time cultivating it, lest the thorns of this world’s cares and worries and the busyness of life crowd out and choke off the promise (Mark 4:7) — to lean on the imagery held up on this night: a neglected child will not flourish.
The promise is a delicate bloom, the fruit of much careful cultivation. (Isaiah 61:11) In some senses its very fragility is what makes it so beautiful and begging us to be gentle with it. (2 Corinthians 12:9) Those who rejoice in it, have to come to terms with its very vulnerability, knowing that it will show itself only for a little while (John 16:16): they have to risk letting it be seen, that others might be attracted by its beauty — this is our witness that calls to others: “You, too, can be like this!” Just so is the promise proclaimed. And like all fragile flowers, it will soon fade; but this is what it was made for. (Matthew 6:28-30) For what good is a flower that is not seen? We have to let its beauty be seen, that others might be attracted by its promise; we have to trust there will be some who are so enraptured by its beauty, that they will let its seed be sown in them and then go on to cultivate and nurture it that it may bloom again as a promise to the next generation. (Psalm 78:6)
So do we come to terms with the delicate but fragile beauty of what is but our own mortal life, knowing that the witness of a life well lived is all we have to let others know that a Good life/a Godly life is possible (Romans 7:21ff), and so call them to do the same: “‘Tis a beautiful thing and a thing of beauty, worth whatever it costs!” (Matthew 13:44-46. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:49. Mark 10:17ff) This is what Jesus means when he reminds us elsewhere: “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” (John 12:24) For there to be a harvest, the bud must blossom and die. The Word sown in us is all vulnerability and promise, but unless we let that Word grow and blossom in the soil of a good life well lived, it will come to nothing. (C.f.: Luke 1:6-7, 13-14, 36-37) The Word to us on this Holy Night is: “Listen. Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10-11. C.f.: 1:31-32); let God’s Word that is as vulnerable as a new born child come into your heart. (Psalm 95:8) If you hear it (Luke 1:35) and welcome it (Mark 4:20) with eager expectation, soon will be born in you what all creation has been groaning for with eager longing until now: the unveiling of one who is a child of God, a wondrous thing and a marvel to behold (Romans 8:19-24, 29; John 1:12, 3:5ff; Luke 2:20; Matthew 2:1ff) — blessed are they! (C.f.: Matthew 5:9; 25:34) This is its promise.
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO