Christmas Eve / 4th Sunday of Advent

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…”

In Bethlehem, the world’s most earth-shattering event is happening. Humanity is receiving a gift. A gift that meets all the hopes and fears of all the years. There is no fanfare. No trumpets. Mortals sleep. The silent stars go by. And a King is born. The baby – God’s son – lies asleep in a manger.

In July 2013, Prince George was born. From the moment it was announced that Kate was pregnant, there was excitement and speculation. And at his birth, the world was told. Messages of congratulations were sent. The public flocked on the streets to catch a glimpse of the baby and his mother. People searched the media to see the first pictures. There was an emotional outpouring. Flowers. A future King was born.

The King of England is feted and loved before his birth. The King of Eternity and the Universe slips, unseen into the world in a silent stable.

The moment is captured in a single sentence in Scripture for less is more. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Children’s Nativity plays today often have priceless moments. A recent video of a nativity hit the news. In it, a very cute tiny sheep with curly hair gets bored and grabs the doll from the manger. A slightly older Mary and Joseph stand up, march over to the happy sheep, snatch the baby back, and put it back in the manger. The little sheep is determined and grabs the baby from the manger again. Mary and Joseph hitch up their robes and there is a furious scuffle at the manger. Mary grabs the sheep in a headlock and the teacher intervenes.

But the reality of God’s birth is profound.

Nine months have gone by since the Angel Gabriel came to Mary. She was still a nobody. Matthew tells us that she was seen as an immoral nobody because, as an unwed mother, she faced rejection by Joseph and possibly a public stoning. It hasn’t been an easy nine months for this mother of the son of God. And as all births are, it is exhausting and painful. No luxuries or comforts. It is a lonely birth too. No family tiptoeing in. No fluffy toys. No bunches of flowers and cards.

Yet there is glory here. Christmas cards capture this by surrounding the crib with light. For this is the Son of the Most High. On earth there is obscurity at his birth, but in heaven there is rejoicing and exultation. For, as Isaiah tells us,

A child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

There is a pattern here, and a paradox. The greatest human of all time, God’s son, is born in the lowliest of circumstances, to the lowliest of parents. The glory of God within the body of a frail new-born. The Son of God swaddled in bands of cloth in the manger.

And those to be told first were the lowliest in Jewish society – the shepherds. It was not the Jewish scholars, rulers, teachers or the respectable people who were told, but Shepherds, who were uneducated social outcasts in the Jewish society.

Since the sheep couldn’t be left unattended, they could not go to the synagogue, so they were generally not very learned in Judaism, and rarely went to the Temple. Yet they are the ones to whom the Angel of the Lord appears. It was around them that the glory of the Lord shone. It was to them that the first stupendous declaration is made – the most historic public declaration of all time. “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour…the Lord.” It was to them that the multitude of heavenly host appears. It is wonderfully appropriate too – for as Jesus later constantly tells his critics, it is for the outcasts and sinners that he has come. For those who need the Saviour.

Notice the shepherds’ response. There was no discussion, no questions. They were simply open to the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. You see, they hadn’t many preconceived notions about what the Saviour should be like. The educated Jews of the time would have had a hard time with a baby in a manger being the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. They would have found it impossible to believe that the Son of the Most High God was lying in a manger. Some things don’t change through the centuries.

The shepherds hurry to see the child. And then they tell everyone what they had heard and seen. They really were the first bringers of the good news about Jesus – telling people, as our epistle reading puts it, that “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all…to redeem us from our iniquity.”

We need to take a step sideways on this silent night, as we wait for the bells to ring in Christmas. Away from the bustle and noise of the chaos, and the stress, and the tiredness. Like the Shepherds, we need to pause to see “this thing that has taken place.” So that we might be amazed. That, like the shepherds, we might return home glorifying and praising God.

There is a wonderful sentence at the end of the gospel reading. Mary, we are told, “treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.” We need to do the same. To ponder. To dwell on the mystery, and to marvel. If the baby born on Christmas day is really the King of a different Kingdom, we should think of how we should live as people of this Kingdom he brought to earth.

About 10 years ago, when I was a student in Nottingham, I was asked to play the part of Mary at the carol service in my church. I am not great at acting – not since I forgot my lines and had bad stage fright as a child. So I hummed and hawed. But the rector’s wife was persuasive. It was a tableau, she said. No words to be spoken at all, she explained. It would be great to have a Mary, who had brown skin, and looked a bit authentic. Could I do this one little part for the carol service? So I agreed.

But I was not prepared for what happened at the service that night.

I carried the “baby Jesus” – a wrapped up doll – up the church aisle with Joseph by my side. As I walked up, it suddenly felt very real. I was overwhelmed as I realised that a young, bewildered mother held a baby in her arms – a baby she knew was God. My thoughts raced. How could this helpless baby, so vulnerable and tiny wrapped up for warmth, really be the son of God? I found myself fighting back tears as I sat up front during the tableau, looking down at the “baby Jesus.” There was awe in the eyes of the kids who came up to me and looked at the baby. That night, I couldn’t fall asleep. I got out of bed, sat down and wrote down the thoughts and emotions that I had felt that night.

“God in my arms.”

At His birth,
tired and bewildered I held him.
This, the Morning Star of heaven, Son of earth?
My son? With Divinity enmeshed,
God’s Son en-fleshed?

Tell me, wise people of earth,
Can Yahweh, the Almighty of Eternity,
have fuzzy baby eyebrows and eyes,
soft baby skin, baby hair, and snuggle warm against my body
with little baby whimpers and baby sighs?

Tell me, how the Master of the Universe
might be cradled within amniotic gloom?
Or crafted into blood and bones,
the Creator of Light,
for nine months locked within the darkness of a womb?

I look into sleepy eyes that focus unseeing,
and adore, not Yahweh, but a warm soft child.
I forget He is Divine,
for what I hold in my arms is baby warmth with baby scent of milk,
and baby fingers curled with confidence round mine.

Yet suddenly,
my heart quickens,
memory returns
of a Divine visitation,
a mystic revelation!

Then my breath falters with terror,
the immensity of this frightening truth;
this is my son with pink tongue outstretched in drowsy content
with milky baby yawn,
the Ruler of the Universe
lies Incarnate in my arms
in the stillness of a hushed and silent dawn?