Tonight, we come before the baby lying in the manger. We come to Bethlehem in praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We are gathered like the shepherds in the field watching their flocks by night when the unexpected news of the birth of the Son of God was broadcast by an angel. Together with the angels and shepherds at Bethlehem and the multitude of the hosts of heaven we too sing the song of joy: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people who enjoy God’s favour.
The gospel account we have just heard from Luke the Evangelist inserts this great event of the Lord’s birth in the context of secular, political history. It happened at the time when the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census throughout the then known world and Joseph went with Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, to be counted. Luke the Evangelist does this in order to show that the story of the birth of Jesus is not a cleverly invented myth but a fact of history: it really and actually took place at a specific moment in time. But there is more to the way he begins this story. By telling us that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar, Luke intends to say that the birth of Christ brings an end to the reign of darkness, represented by the dictatorship and tyranny of Caesar. That is why when the angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds watching their flock in the dead of the night the glory of the Lord shone round them. This is the glory of the divine light which dispels darkness
“Do not be afraid: for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.” These words of the angel of the Lord to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock are also meant for us tonight: “Do not be afraid.” Why should we not be afraid? Because Christ the Lord has been born for us. Amidst the uncertainties of the times in which we live. Amidst the darkness that has enveloped our world with the raging pandemic. Amidst the despair and despondency, tears and sorrows, gloom and doom occasioned by the daily staple of violence and bloodshed in our land. Amidst the loss of means of livelihoods and the daily diet of hunger and misery being fed to millions of our countrymen and women. Amidst all of these, the angelic counsel, “Do not be afraid” acquires a new significance for us. Light has come to dispel darkness.
It is ironic that we are told to not be afraid because of a little child lying in a manger. Who is this fragile child on whose account we are exhorted to not be afraid? What has he got to do with our lives and our condition? Children are being born every day, even in Judea at the time. What is it about the birth of this child that makes a difference? The answer is that the child that has been born this day is the Christ of God. He is God. The One who through whom the universe was made, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, has come down to us in the form of a fragile little child. At the centre of this experience is a powerful story of love. What else could have made God do this? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Thus at the scene of the birth of the Son of God, we are confronted with the staggering reality of the wretchedness of our human condition. Around the manger at Bethlehem we are presented with the vulnerability of God. We see the fragility of God. We witness the poverty of God. We are challenged by the humiliation of God. Mary had to give birth to Jesus in the dirty, smelly abode of sheep and goats, out in the cold winter, because there was no room in the Inn. This humiliation of God should make us pause and reflect. After two thousand years, it appears that there is still no room for Jesus in the Inn of our lives. We are caught up with our own concerns and are preoccupied with our own interests that we do not have a place for the Lord.
It is for this reason that John the Evangelist passes this indictment in the Prologue to his Gospel: “He came to his own, but his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Thankfully, the Evangelist did not stop here. He added immediately: “But to all those who did receive him, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). The shepherds who first received the news of Christ’s birth belong to this category of those who accepted and welcomed the baby lying in the manger. In these lowly people we see God choosing the weak, those considered unimportant in human eyes to be heralds of the Lord’s birth. By our acceptance of this joyful news, we too have become children of God.
As such, what appears to be the humiliation of God becomes Good News. And this Good News is the central claim of Christianity after two thousand years. It is the Good News that God became human. The creator of the cosmos, who transcends any definition or concept, took to himself a nature like ours, becoming one of us. In this simple but revolutionary event, Christianity proclaims that the infinite and the finite met, that the eternal and the temporal embraced, that the fashioner of the galaxies and planets became a baby took weak to even raise his head.
And to make the humour even more pointed, this incarnation of God was first made manifest not in Rome or Athens, or Babylon, not in a great political or cultural capital, but in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny outpost in the corner of the Roman Empire. One might laugh derisively at this joke – as many have done over the centuries, but as G.K. Chesterton observed, the heart of even the most skeptical person is changed simply by having heard this message, this good news. Christian believers up and down the ages are those who have laughed with delight at this sacred joke and have never tired of hearing it repeated.
And so dear friends, what we celebrate this night is what make our Catholic faith distinctive among all the religions of the world. It is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God. The Incarnation tells us the most important truth about us. And this truth is contained in the question: Why did God become a human being? The answer to this question is that God became human so that humans might become God. God became a human being so that humanity might be elevated to share in divinity. God humbled himself to enter into our flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine love that holds Father, Son and Holy Spirit in communion. In one word, the Incarnation tells us that we are destined for divinization. We are destined to be transformed into God.
Jesus has not just come to restore us to paradise lost. No. He brings something more. Because he has entered our world, because he has assumed our human nature, we can now dare to call God our Father because Jesus is our brother. We can now claim the title of sons and daughters of God “who are born not from the human stock nor from human passion but from God” (John 1:13). This is a special grace that the Incarnation confers on us. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “God has not said to any angel, you are my son, I have begotten you this day. Or again, I shall be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (Heb. 1:5). But to us who believe in Jesus, as St John the Evangelist says, power has been given to us to become children of God (cf. Jn. 1:13).
St Paul tells us the sort of live we are to lead as people of the Lord’s Nativity. As children of light, we are to renounce irreligion and worldly passions and live sober, upright and godly lives in this world as we await the blessed hope of the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is the long-term aspiration of the Incarnation. In the end, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is. At our baptism we were given the symbol of light to be kept burning brightly. As people now enlightened by Christ, we are called to walk always as children of light, spreading the radiance of God’s love and peace everywhere. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” If we are part of this people, we must shine forth in the world the goodness of Christ. Let us heed the warning of the Lord when he says that light has come but men preferred darkness because their deeds are evil.
Do we prefer darkness to light? The child lying in the manger wants intimate friendship with us. Why else did he take our own human nature if he doesn’t want to be our friend and our brother? He is God’s offer of the possibility of a radically new life for each one of us. We can no longer continue to live in darkness because light has come. We must purify ourselves of all traces of wickedness, corruption and begin to live as children of light. If Jesus will save our nation, he will want to do it with us and through us. That is why he is Emmanuel, God with us. He not only dwells with us; he also lives in us, and his life must be visible in us. We are the ones to tell the world that light has come, and that the era of darkness is over.
Today a Saviour is born to us. He is Christ the Lord. May the Lord of Bethlehem, the Lord of the Universe who comes to us in the infant lying in the manger cast away the darkness of our hearts and shed the light of his glory on us. Amen.