Paradoxes of Christmas
Christmas Day. Fr Sam Burke invites us to welcome Christmas into our homes.
The verses of St. John’s Prologue are amongst the most treasured in all of scripture and provide the definitive curtain-raiser to the greatest story ever told. It’s a passage that evinces the most profound truths and expresses them with lyrical beauty unsurpassed. Words like these cannot be rushed, nor can they be read only once. Only gradually is the meaning revealed to us through prayer and study. It takes time for us to fathom such richly symbolic terms like the Word, life, and glory, which the rest of John’s Gospel will echo and develop. And it takes time for us to grapple with the cosmic significance of what is being described. It’s something of a paradox that a passage which can be read in a few minutes takes a lifetime to understand and appreciate.
Paradoxes indeed abound in the Christmas story. It’s not entirely surprising when you think about it: our Catholic faith is full of them. Not for nothing did Fr. Robert Hugh Benson — a favourite author of Pope Francis, as it happens — write a book entitled The Paradoxes of Catholicism.
Consider, for example, how remarkable it is that The Light of the World is born in the darkness of December; how striking it is that the Eternal Word, through whom all things were made, comes into the world as a speechless baby; how bizarre it is that The Bread of Life, who will give his flesh as true food for eternal life, is laid to rest in a manger, a feeding trough for livestock. And just think how The Lord of the Universe was born in the humblest and poorest circumstances conceivable: not in a palace but in a stable, not in Jerusalem but a humble town six miles to the South. Christmas paradoxes such as these not only confound expectations but can leave us rather beguiled. As with the Prologue, we have to prayerfully contemplate such paradoxes, to marvel on their wonder and enchantment, to enter into the mystery.
It was Fr. Benson’s contemporary, G. K. Chesterton, who put his finger on another Christmas paradox. Chesterton wrote ‘Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.’
‘The birth of the homeless…’
Chesterton’s words rang in my ear last week as Malcolm Guite’s poem Refugee was read at this year’s Westminster Abbey’s Carol Concert at the suggestion of His Majesty The King. It begins:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple.
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
He is with the displaced and the downtrodden, the homeless and the poor. He is Emmanuel — God-with-us; and perhaps with-them, especially. For their circumstances are his: Jesus was born a refugee, in penury and persecuted. This thought is surely one of the reasons why so many of us contribute to and volunteer for homeless charities this time of year. ‘For as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
‘…should be celebrated in every home.’
No proper home at Christmas is bereft of cards, carols and a crib. Lest we get caught up in consumer frenzy and naff glitz, these things help to bring us back to what Christmas is really about. Pope Francis observed as much a couple of weeks ago, singling out the nativity scene in particular: ‘in its genuine poverty, the creche helps us to rediscover the true richness of Christmas and to purify ourselves of so many aspects that pollute the Christmas landscape.’
Thus the value of a creche or crib in our home is that it takes us closer to his. Our irrepressible love of home where we find peace and security— what the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton called ‘oikophilia’—then finds its fulfilment not by the warmth of the sitting room fire, nor in the comfort of our own bed, but knelt at the Bethlehem stable, sharing in Jesus’s vulnerability.
Alongside the Holy Family, joining the shepherds and the animals, we gaze upon the Christ child. Here God has at last pitched his tent among us. Christ comes to redeem our fallen world, to save our broken humanity, to make made his dwelling with us so that we might, in turn, choose to make our dwelling with Him, our Saviour and our true home.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a safe journey home.
Image: detail from Nativity by Filippo Lippi, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
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With thanks and wishing you a very blessed Christmas!