Christmas Eve 2017

We have just heard the Christmas story, St Luke's account of the birth of Jesus. We've heard it so many times that we no longer listen. 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 a child was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, 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 were there other women present, women who witnessed the birth of Jesus, just as later they would witness his death and resurrection? Perhaps they were the same women, who prepared Jesus for burial, dressing him in a funeral shroud. It's strange that no other women are mentioned but Mary and that we never see another woman in the crib. 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 Mystery of the Incarnation with all its terrible consequences. So we can ask ourselves tonight, what are we willing to do for God? Can we even begin to follow in the footsteps of Mary?

The child was "laid in a manger," a feeding trough for cattle, 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 laid for crucifixion. Mangers were shaped like an open coffin, reminding us of the tomb in which he lay dead as he awaited the resurrection. Cattle gather around a manger to feed, just as we gather around the altar for Mass when Jesus feeds us with his Body and Blood. We are used to seeing paintings and statues of the Madonna and Child with Mary looking lovingly at the child in her arms, but in the stable at Bethlehem, the House of Bread, the Holy Infant lies alone in the manger wrapped in swaddling bands. The question for us tonight is this: if God became incarnate, that I might eat the Bread of Life and so share in his life, what sacrifice am I willing to make so that Christ might live in me and I in him? What does the Mass mean to me? How do I prepare 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 town 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, the God who lives as a man among men: his home was in heaven. St John writes, "He came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him." He came to be rejected, to face trial and humiliation and to die on a cross. Rejection 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 and how often, even now, do I turn him away, when he comes to me and asks for my help in the person of the poor and the homeless, 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, even today?

On behalf of Fr Prior and the Monastic Community, I wish you and your loved ones a very Happy Christmas.