Light and darkness are the two dominant images for people around the world. We link light to all the pleasant experiences of life. We speak of darkness when things do not go well for us and we experience death, depression or oppression. The first reading for the first mass of Christmas faces us with a people liberated from foreign oppression. The nation of Israel and the people of God have been overrun by the Assyrians, the super power of the time. Now liberation is at hand, and is an immediate prospect. Isaiah describes it in glowing terms. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Joy follows the light that has come to remove the darkness. God now breaks the yoke that has been weighing the people down. The burdensome yoke of foreign rule will be at an end. God will bring freedom as he brought it in the past.
The liberation of the people will be marked by the arrival of a new king. “For there is a child born for us, a son given to us, dominion is laid on his shoulders, and this is the name given to him: Wonder Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” Peace and justice will be the main features of his kingdom. The names sum up his qualities. As Wonder Counsellor he will be in need of no outside advice. His plans will attain their goals because God will guide his thinking. He is “Mighty God” because of his extensive and masterful power. Kings were never called God before, but previous inaugurations called them sons of God. He is the adopted son of God who exercises authority on behalf of God himself. He is the legitimate representative of God on this earth. As “Eternal Father” his rule will be fatherly, of benefit to all and marked by real goodness or justice. As “Prince of Peace” he will guarantee that all creatures will follow their destiny without interference or disturbance. He and his successors will guarantee salvation and life for their people during their reigns. The detail of this and other prophecies give us insights into Jesus, descendant of David, Messiah and Son of God.
We now turn to the Gospels to see what understanding they give us of the newborn king. It is true that the Infancy Gospels tell us more about who Christ is than about his birth. The focus will be on St. Luke’s account of Jesus birth and on the prologue of St John who explains in some detail who Jesus is.
Luke sets the birth of Jesus in the context of secular history. It occurred in the time of Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the Roman Empire. Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth. They had to go to Jerusalem for a strange reason. Augustus had ordered a census to be carried out in all the Roman provinces. The census required that all return to their native place. This does not tally with the general evidence. But it brings Joseph and Mary all the way to Bethlehem, the place of origin of the great king, David, and the promised town from which a future Messiah and descendant of David would come.
The child was born in poor and desolate circumstances. There was no room for them in the local hostelries. Mary and Joseph were homeless at the time and lacked adequate shelter to accommodate the new born. Shepherds who were the poorest of the poor and without esteem and recognition at the time, were the first to visit and honour him. Of course, in earlier times David was a shepherd, the youngest son of Jesse and out looking after sheep when Samuel called and anointed him as king of the whole nation.
Angels appeared to the shepherds and brought them the good news of an extraordinary happening. “Do not be afraid, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.” The angel of the Lord goes on to announce who the child is. “Today, in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Jesu is the Saviour who comes to give life and free people from sin. He is also Messiah (Christ) and Lord. This title of God is given to Jesus in the gospels. They remind us very much of St. Peter’s words on Pentecost day. “For this reason the whole house of Israel can be certain that the Lord and Christ whom God has made is this Jesus whom you crucified.”(Acts 2:36)
At the birth of Jesus heaven and earth meet. They also meet with the coming of the angels and the manifestation of the glory of God to the shepherds.
St. John, in the prologue of his Gospel, the final Gospel of the Christmas celebrations, has given us the deepest reflection on the birth of Jesus. It starts off, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning”. Most of us are drowned in words from one end of the day to the other. We are more familiar with words than with anything else. But, it is worth thinking about words. We use words all the time to disclose ourselves to each other, to reveal our thoughts, feelings and observations to one another. God’s Son is the Word of God. He came to our world to reveal God to us, to show us his face, and inner nature, to uncover for us what God is like.
Words are normally born in the mind. Sometimes it is hard to figure where they come from. Normally they spring from our minds. The Word of God is born in the mind of God. He was in the mind of God from all eternity. But God decided to speak his Word to humankind. When we speak you hear a voice. When God spoke we see a person. That person is Jesus Christ. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us”. The Word became a human person when Jesus entered our world. As Word he came to reveal an uncover God to us. He did this in a very human way.
The Word is not the only epithet or image used to describe the meaning of Jesus for us. He is responsible for a new creation when people who believe in him and accept him take on a new life. He gives that life because he is “the light of the world”. Again, the image is simple. Nor robber will come to burgle a house without a torch. The light discloses what is available in the house. Jesus is the light that shines in the dark, in a world that has no knowledge of God or of his ways. He shines in the dark and is “a light that darkness could not overpower”. The false understanding, false values and evil associated with darkness could not overcome the bright light that the Word brings to mankind. The Word was the true light that came to our world. He came to enlighten us and reveal God to us. He also came to enlighten us about ourselves and show us beyond doubt that self-giving love is the key to becoming a good and mature person in this world.
There is also another very important word in John’s prologue that highlights the revelation of Jesus. It is “Truth”. He was “full of grace and truth”. He was the gift of God’s truth to us. The gift of the Law came through Moses. “Grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.” Jesus gives us the gift of revelation about God. What did he reveal about God to us? The answer comes later in St. John’s Gospel. “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:15)
This Gospel Indicates how we respond to Jesus’ revelation, to the truth about God and ourselves to which he gave us access. The Gospel reminds us that the world did not know Him. In other words it failed to come to relationship with him. His own people did not accept him. But he goes on, “But to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” To accept him is to “believe in his name” or to believe in or into him. Those who commit to him receive the power “to become children of God”. As faith deepens and grows stronger we gradually grow as children of God and so add to our standing as children of God. Those who achieve full maturity as children of God become incapable of sin, because their relationship with Christ is so strong. John in his first Letter reminds us, “No one who is a child of God sins.”(1John 3:9)
Every Christmas is a new call to revive and renew our faith. May this Christmas be a time of contact with the infant, who is both God and man. He came in this extraordinary way to tell us how important we are as people of God’s creation and he longs for each of us to embrace his gift of life and develop it after the pattern of himself who became an infant in Bethlehem and grew to be the Way, the Truth and the Life that leads us to God and to our full maturity as Christians and human persons.