THE CATHEDRAL OF ST STEPHEN
A great promise had been made to Mary by the angel Gabriel: she was to be the mother of the royal messiah – she a young woman who was a nobody from nowhere. It was almost incredible, but still she spoke her word of faith: “Let it be done to me as you have said”.
Now the time has come for her to give birth. She might have expected that the child would be born in some more noble setting, a royal palace perhaps. But no: the baby is born not even in the local inn but in the space outside reserved for animals, with the newborn placed in a manger. Joseph may have been of the royal line of David and the baby may have been the royal messiah, but this was decidedly unroyal; and Mary must’ve thought that something had gone wrong. It wasn’t meant to be like this, surely. Perhaps she had misunderstood; perhaps the angel’s promise was a ruse; perhaps God’s plan had gone off the rails.
After the shepherds have come and gone, we’re told that Mary pondered all these things in her heart; and who can blame her for that? The impression at times is that Mary treasured all these things in her heart, as if she was left in awe, thinking how wonderful it all was. But in fact she’s presented as someone who’s left wrestling with everything that had happened, trying to work out what it all meant, like someone doing a big jigsaw puzzle – putting the pieces together to see the overall picture.
Mary’s puzzlement will grow still greater when she takes the baby to the Temple to dedicate him to God and she hears dark words from Simeon that the child will be a sign misinterpreted and her own heart will be pierced by a sword. She can’t have known what that meant, but she must’ve thought that this wasn’t mentioned by Gabriel. That wasn’t part of the deal.
So much seems to go wrong for Mary. She appears more and more like someone who signed a blank cheque when she said yes to the angel. She didn’t realise the cheque was blank at the time, but it was; and through the Gospel of Luke and into the Acts of the Apostles the God of the promise will continue to fill in the cheque in surprising ways. God is faithful to the promise, but not in the ways Mary expects.
What is true of her is true of us too. Looking back across the last year, so much seems to have gone wrong. Like Mary we’ve placed our trust in the promise of God: that God will be with us no matter what, to protect and save with a love that never fails. But where is this love now as we make our way through the dim and dreary landscape of the pandemic? We thought the virus was receding, but now there’s the new threat of Omicron and we wonder how many more variants are out there lying in wait for us. We’re a bit like runners in a marathon, but with no finishing line in sight; and that can produce a kind of fatigue, a sapping of morale or even hope.
As we look ahead to 2022, the words of the Prime Minister echo among us: the post-COVID world, he said, will be “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”. That may not be the whole story of the new year, but it will be enough of the story to leave us anxious and uncertain. So like Mary we wrestle with all of this, trying to work out what it means and where it’s taking us, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, asking where is God in the mess.
To see that God is faithful to the promise, though not as we expect, we need to see with new eyes; and Christmas is all about the birth of new vision, a new way of seeing. The evangelist Luke is always more interested in how human beings respond to the facts than in the facts themselves.
This was true in his account of Mary’s conception of the messiah. We’re not told when she conceives, but we are told when she speaks her word of faith. Luke wants to present Mary as one who conceives in her heart before she conceives in her womb; and she conceives in her heart once she speaks her word of faith: “Let it be done to me”.
So too with the birth. Luke doesn’t focus on the physical birth which he recounts very briefly: “She gave birth to a son…wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger”. Instead of lingering at the birth-scene, he switches out into the countryside where the spotlight falls on the shepherds, hardly fit company for the royal messiah. The shepherds hear a word from heaven, put their trust in it and have it confirmed once they arrive at the birth-scene. It’s the shepherds’ response to the birth that interests the evangelist more than the physical birth itself.
This is because Luke knows that the physical birth, like the physical conception, happened only once to one person, Mary, a long time ago. But the conception in the heart, the act of faith, happens in every time and place, can happen in the life of every human being; and once it does happen, the child is born in every time and place, can be born in the life of every human being.
The Church is the midwife missing from the Gospel story; and her task is always to bring the newborn safely and joyfully into the world. We find ourselves in a strange world where just about everything seems to be going wrong. But it’s in such a world that the baby is born; and those with eyes to see go like the shepherds to find the child or like the Magi bring their gifts and do him homage.
So the question for us at Christmas is this: Where in this bleak and shrunken COVID world do we see the newborn child? He is there to be seen; joy is found in unlikely places. The only question is whether we have eyes to see him.
If we don’t see him, the heavens remain shut and a dim world is silent with the silence of the tomb. But once we do see him the heavens open, light breaks through and we hear the angels’ song: Glory to God and peace on earth! We not only hear the angels’ song but we echo it as we sing the great songs of Christmas.
We might even find rising in our heart, as I do in mine, the words and music of the Jewish poet and song-writer Leonard Cohen: “Even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”…