Christmas Eve 2013

 On behalf of Fr Prior and the Monastic Community, I welcome you to this Midnight Mass and wish you and your loved ones every blessing and a very Happy Christmas. 

 We have just heard the Christmas story, St Luke's account of the birth of Jesus. We've heard it so often that, perhaps, we no longer listen to what's being said. On the other hand, we might long to hear each word and could happily listen to the story over and over again, hoping that each time something new will strike us. St Luke writes so beautifully that it makes for easy reading, even when the story told is hard to grasp and difficult to understand.  

Take, for example, the sentence, "She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn." What are these swaddling clothes? In Israel at the time, when an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and also ensured that the child's limbs would grow straight. Mary must have done that for her newborn son. Did she do it all alone or did Joseph assist her? That's most unlikely, so were there other women present, who witnessed the birth of Jesus, just as later they would witness his death and resurrection, perhaps the very women who prepared Jesus for burial and dressed him with a funeral shroud? We don't know, but it's an intriguing thought. What the story does show us is how brave Mary was and how powerful her trust in God. When she said to the angel, "Be it done unto me according to thy word," she accepted her part in the whole Mystery of the Incarnation and in all its terrible consequences. So we must ask ourselves tonight, what are we willing to do for God and how far are we willing to go for him? Can we even begin to follow in the footsteps of Mary?

The child was "laid in a manger," a feeding trough for cattle to be found in every stable. No doubt it was comfortable and warm, what with the hay and the swaddling clothes, and very practical. But there's more to it than that. Mangers were made of wood, as was the cross on which Jesus was lain to be crucified. Mangers were shaped like an open coffin, reminding us of the tomb in which he lay dead as, in darkness, he awaited the resurrection. Cattle gather around a manger to feed, just as we are gathered tonight around the altar for Mass, where we will be fed by Jesus with his own Body and Blood. Although we are used to seeing paintings of the Madonna and Child with Mary looking lovingly at her child, in the stable at Bethlehem, the House of Bread, the Holy Infant lies alone in the manger wrapped in swaddling bands. The Child in the manger is the Host on the altar, there both to feed us and to be adored, for Jesus our Messiah is Emmanuel, God with us. The question for us tonight is this: if God became incarnate, that we might eat the Bread of Life and so have God's life in us through partaking of the Eucharist, what sacrifice am I willing to make in order that Christ may live in me and I in him? What does the Mass really mean to me and what sort of preparation do I make to receive Holy Communion?

 "There was no room for them in the inn." Just a short phrase this to explain why Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable. The village was crowded for the census, all available space was fully occupied and, in any case, no woman was allowed to give birth where others were living. Labour and childbearing must take place in private and in seclusion. But there's more to it than that. Jesus came as an outsider, a stranger, for he was God who came to live as a man among men: his home was in heaven. St John writes in his Prologue, "He came to his own home, and his own people not accept him." He came to be rejected, to face trial and to die on a cross and the process began even before he was born, hence the stable. But what if Mary and Joseph had come to my door? What if they turn up tonight? Will I let them in? Will I make them welcome? Or will I simply turn them away? How often have I turned my back on Jesus in the course of my life? And how often, even now, do I turn him away, when he comes to me and asks for my help in the person of others: the aged, the poor, those made outcast and despised by others, immigrants and foreigners and those who are just different from the rest of us? Is there still no room in the inn? Is there still no room for Jesus in my life? To celebrate Christmas is to proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ. To come to Midnight Mass is to say that there is nothing and no one more important to us than Jesus. He is the centre of my life. He is everything for me. "Lord Jesus, you have given your life for me. Help me now to give my life for you. Forgive my past negligences and sins and, as I kneel before the altar of the crib tonight, give me new life, a life which is centred on you alone, a life that will never end. Amen."