The Gospel we have just heard is about two kingdoms. There is the kingdom of Cesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor who calls a census of the entire world. He is anxious to consolidate his reign politically and financially and to extend his effective control of what was considered the whole world of the time. By any way of thinking the expansion of the Roman Empire was a remarkable achievement rarely replicated in later history. It brought a unified cultural and political reality into being. Cesar Augustus was so satisfied with his achievement that he even thought of himself as a God.
Alongside this vast kingdom which seeks consolidation another king appears: the infant who is to be found in a manger. Jesus is born outside the circle of power and authority. The stable itself would have been outside the city. His first abode is that of the outsider. He is born not in the palaces of kings or even the comfort of an ordinary family but into a place not designated for human habitation. He is laid to rest not in a throne, not even in the somewhat elegant mangers of our cribs, but in the roughness of a feeding trough for animals.
Interestingly in Saint Luke’s short account of the birth of Jesus this manger is mentioned three times. We are told that Mary laid her infant in the manger. The shepherds are told that it is a manger which will be for them the key to identifying new born saviour. And it is when they reach the unlikely scene of a new-born in a manger that they recognise in this the person of the saviour, the Messiah and Lord.
The manger is thus a sign, not just for those mentioned in the Gospel narrative but also for us. When we look at the manger this evening what is it pointing to in today’s world? The manger is first of all a reminder that God tells us that if we want to understand who God is, then we have to look first of all at the humility of Jesus’ birth. The God of power and might appears in our midst without any of the trappings of what power and might mean in our terms. When we recognise that Jesus is born as an outsider, then we realise that God must be different to what we think.
Christmas is a Feast of humility – not just the emotional humility of the sweet carol songs and nice stories. It is the feast which teaches us that humility is the basic channel through which God chooses to reveal to us who he is. Jesus is born in humility; he lives in humility and finally humbling himself even until death he reveals how God is love.
What does that say to us and to the Church? What does it mean for us in today’s complex world to live in humility? The Church is present in the complex world of modern society as an institution; there is however always a sense in which institutions are inevitably tempted away from humility. Institutions tend to become self-perpetuating. They tend to resist change. How then can the Church best preserve and protect its identity and its mission to represent in time the space in which the humility of Jesus is present?
How do we ensure that the true image of Jesus is protected in the manner in which the Church lives in our culture as an institution and as a community? Let us look once again at our Gospel reading. In addition to repeating the word “manger”, Saint Luke also repeats the term “swaddling clothes”. What is being said here? Once again there is a link between the birth of Jesus and his death when his body was once more wrapped in a cloth as it was laid to rest, and once again with the cloth found lying in the empty tomb, a sign of where Jesus was to be found.
The bond linking all these moments is Mary. Mary is the one who protects the infant. She is also the only person mentioned in the infancy narratives who reappears at any other time later in the Gospel. She is there at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. She is there at the cross. Her entire life is a continuous pondering on the revelation which begins with the birth of her son. For us also the Christian life is one of pondering every day how our lives reflect the humility and self-giving of Jesus.
The birth of this day is the beginning of a confrontation between two kinds of kingdom, a confrontation which still takes place even today within each of our hearts. Renewal in the Church means rediscovering its roots in humility and witnessing to that humility in society. Renewal in our lives means living that humility.
We have to rediscover the simplicity of Christmas. We have to rediscover the simplicity of Christmas not just to turn away from excess and exaggeration. We have to rediscover the simplicity of Christmas so that we can leave aside attitudes which focus on ourselves and rediscover what living for each other means.
In the current moment of economic hardship it is important to continually look for the political and economic measures which are most likely to foster inclusion and to identify and expose clearly those factors which leave men and women increasingly in a situation of precariousness or exclusion.
But it is not a question of simply pointing to what government can and should do. We have to rediscovery a sense of Christian neighbourliness of the every day. We have to rebuild stronger relationships with neighbours, particularly the elderly and most vulnerable, in an effort to restore true community spirit. We have to break down some of the barriers of personal privacy which we rightly treasure, to allow all of us to realise the fundamental need of solidarity, support and of good neighbourliness.
Humility is the key to everyday Christian solidarity. Humility is a different road to that of the haughtiness of the corrupt which has led to so much hardship in our country. Humility is a different road to that of the arrogance which has given rise to a horrible cycle of criminal violence which tarnishes our city. Humility is a different road to that of the indifference and lack of caring which leads to hopelessness.
We have to rediscover the simplicity of Christmas. Christmas is a feast for children, but even more it is a feast of adults who learn from the simplicity of children. Unfortunately there are many ways in which our prosperity has led us to rob the simplicity of children through a false sophistication, which is not rarely only a sort of self-gratification. The Christmases I remember best are the ones when the gifts I received captured the simplicity and the imagination of my childhood. Robbing simplicity from children is robbing them also of what is the essential key to understanding who God is, the God who appeared in humility and simplicity.
Christmas can be a moment of the most profound and valid human emotions. It can be a moment of the happiness of family reunion and yet it can also be a moment of the most profound isolation and loneliness. Bringing Christ back into Christmas is not simply about different kinds of Christmas cards, or of isolated moments of religious experience within a secularised world; it is about understanding God more profoundly through becoming like Jesus and spreading his selfless lifestyle in a world in which self can so often dominate. Humility is not just a personal virtue which we are all called to attain. Humility is a social virtue: it is a fundamental attitude towards life and possession, towards creation and progress which leaves none of us unchallenged.
We thank God for those who give their lives in service here in our city, in our diocese, in our country and throughout the world. We remember in prayer and gratitude those who work in service this night and we go away from this encounter with the humility of Christ renewed in our own sense of opting for the kingdom of the one born on this night in humility, who accompanies us in this life and is our hope for eternity: Jesus Christ, our new-born king.