This year’s Christmas cards have brought the usual mix of images: snow scenes, stars, Bethlehem, robins, Santas, reindeer, Christmas trees, and Nativity scenes – that enchanting combination of the sacred and secular which makes up the modern Christmas. As usual, some of the Nativity cards feature classical images by famous artists. One of them, by the 14th century Italian artist, Barna Da Siena, is a characteristically rich ensemble. You know the sort I mean: the baby Jesus lies in the centre against a gold background. Mary, dressed in deep blue, and with her halo the same colour of gold as the large halo surrounding Jesus, kneels in prayer and amazement. To the right, there is Joseph. He is much older than Mary, but unlike her is dressed in rich gold, like his halo. Up in the top right-hand corner, two shepherds gaze into the light in the sky, as does one of their sheep, suggesting their eventual arrival at the scene of the birth. So far, everything is reasonably faithful to Luke’s gospel account, (which we’ve just read.) But there are additions as well, suggested by legends and traditions that grew up after the time of the New Testament. The ox and the ass represent nature’s recognition of the arrival of the Saviour, and are based on a prophecy in Isaiah. Two midwives, Zelemi and Salome, are depicted on the far left, one looking away, the other looking on. And the whole scene takes place in a cave; caves are frequent in that part of Judea and are important as places of revelation in many of the world’s major religions. But why does the artist go into such detail?
Last night, at Midnight Mass, we read the opening words of John’s Gospel, which is often introduced with the words St. John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation. I’m afraid that, for many of us, John does just the opposite. Beautiful and poetic his words may be, but he manages to make the incarnation yet more mysterious! John’s Gospel, the last of the four to be written down, does not narrate the birth of Jesus as an historic event, but more like an introduction to a book of theology or philosophy. Luke, on the other hand, gives us the physical details, centring on a particular person born at a particular time in a particular place.
Why do we come here at Christmas? Well, it’s to hear the details of that story again, because the details of the story are what most of us can relate to more easily. Don’t you find that a good story speaks far more powerfully than volumes of doctrine and theology ever could? We’ve grown up listening to, and telling, stories. Also, in a very real sense, we are all part of a big story, the story of the human being in the world. That bigger story includes our most difficult human predicaments – war, suffering, disease, poverty and injustice – all of which have been amply demonstrated this year – as well as all our achievements in science, medicine, technology, communications, and so on. But within that bigger story, each of us also has our own story, made up of our own, unique details. These details might not seem over-important in the great scheme of things, the larger story. Indeed, they may often feel insignificant, but they mean a great deal to us, for the details include everything that makes us the people we are: our loves, hopes, fears, achievements, failures, conflicts, complications, regrets, losses and all those other things – positive and negative – which make up our particular, individual experience of life.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the fact that God has not remained hidden and remote, but is revealed to be present in the details of our fragile and vulnerable human lives – good times and bad, pain and pleasure, success and failure, rough and smooth. No wonder the biblical story and the traditions around it tell us of choirs of angels, and a unique star in the sky, and shepherds and wise men bearing gifts. When it comes to revelation, it doesn’t come any bigger than this. It’s a curious and heady mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary: of halos and straw; of angelic music and animal noises, of the wealth of kings with their precious gifts, and of no room in the inn. This crib is where heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite, the divine and the human, meet together. I come back to the skill of the painter. Many of the great mediaeval artists gave us pictures set in their own landscapes. Hence, we get classical Nativity scenes with European backgrounds, most of them Italian, far removed from the reality of the Bethlehem stable. A few years ago, visiting a small church in the Sussex Downs, I saw a series of murals on the walls which set scenes and stories against a Sussex background: not classical, not Renaissance Europe, but local and particular and everyday. It struck me then that it’s only when we allow the story of Christmas to be part of the personal landscape of our own life, that its power and significance will really be known. This birth we celebrate today inaugurated a new way of relating to each other, a new way of living in the world, a remarkable achievement for a fragile and vulnerable baby. In this birth lies the potential to bring light out of darkness, peace out of conflict, freedom out of captivity and, ultimately, life out of death. But it’s up to us to open ourselves to these possibilities and to make them happen. The crucial question for all of us who mark this birth today is: now thatwe have received God’s gift, how are we going to let it change the big story of human life in the world, and how will we let it change our own individual stories?