We are all familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus: we are comfortable with it, and it forms part of the romantic furniture of our religious consciousness. But if we are to see the as having any relevance for our daily lives, comfortable is the last thing we should be feeling. The neatly packaged story of the Gospel, and the sanitised version we encounter in popular mythology, do not record the physical pain and blood of the birth, nor the smell of animal excrement and methane around the byre, nor the fear inherent in bringing new life to birth in a country under armed occupation.
How does all that apply to our life at the end of 2014? Do we permit the love of God – the context of the birth that we celebrate in the wonder of this night – do we permit that love to transform our lives and those of the people around us? How do we incorporate the pain and blood, the squalor of the environment of that birth, into our understanding of God’s love? What I want to do is to find some relevance in the Christian message for the life experience of our brothers and sisters suffering from Ebola, for the children whose class mates were killed in the school attack in Pakistan, those under persecution in Syria or Iraq, and for families whose homes, livelihoods and relationships are under threat in our own land.
The significance of the birth of Christ is that he comes to be with us in all our joys, but more especially that he comes to be with us in all our trials and misery. He comes, from the rich mystery of God’s love, to dwell unloved, and largely unnoticed, among us; he comes to lead us back toward the source of all love: he was prepared to die, in order that each and every one of us should have the privilege of choosing to follow him, and to respond to the challenge of his love with changed lives and perspectives. This ineffable self-oblation is in direct contrast with the selfish way in which most of us love.
That great Beguine Mystic, Hadewijch of Brabant (c.1200-1240), points this out in one of her letters, written during the first half of the thirteenth century, in which she says: This is how everyone today loves themselves: they want to live with God in consolation, in wealth and in splendour, and to share in the delight of his glory. We all wish to be God with God. But, God knows, there are few enough of us who want to live as men and women with his humanity, or to bear his cross with him, and to be crucified with him in order to pay for the sins of the whole world.
That medieval visionary embraced the opportunity to unite the suffering of her own life with the suffering of Christ; our Christian life should be marked by the same attitude, in the way pointed out by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) in the Nativity poem in which she writes, What I can I give him, / Give my life. St. Titus teaches us that we have been called to align ourselves wholeheartedly with the One who chose to come to dwell among us in the perishable tent of our own flesh; we should welcome him and praise him for the eternal gift he brings to us. He chose to come at a particular point in history of humanity, yet he has chosen to stay with us, bringing meaning to our joy at Christmas, and to our sorrow at Good Friday. He comes to us in the joyful moment of our own birth, and he will share with us in the anguish of our own dying.
Blessed be the incarnate Wisdom of God, who has come to dwell in our midst; not because he came to live with us in the Past, nor that he will come again to be with us in the Future, but that he is here and now with us in the Present, informing and inspiring our relationship with God, and making worthwhile and giving meaning and purpose to the poverty, pain and passion that he finds there.