Christmas. Fr Peter Hunter reminds us that the story of Christmas makes demands upon those who hear it.
There is a popular modern Christmas song called, ‘Mary did you know?’, with lyrics by American minister Mark Lowry. The lyrics ask Mary whether she knew what her little child, her baby boy, would become.
Some Catholics have responded to the song with irritation, because it plays down just how much Mary knew. Mary listened attentively to the Angel Gabriel, and he told her who Jesus would be, ‘He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High.’
But even more than that, Mary was a faithful Jew. She knew the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures. She knew that the way Gabriel was speaking about Jesus meant that he was the longed-for Messiah, that his life had been foretold by all the prophets, and therefore she did know what he would become, not in every detail but certainly in broad sweeps. She did expect him to save his people from their sins. She did expect him to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind and the lame, to make the dumb speak and the deaf hear, even to raise the dead.
And Scripture tells us that she pondered all these things in her heart. She didn’t just know them in some abstract way. She applied the Scriptures to her very remarkable pregnancy with a very remarkable child.
What I like about the song is that, even if it plays down the role, and even the intelligence, of Mary in this amazing event, it captures the way in which this is so much more than the birth of an amazing child.
I think sometimes secular Britain, and the other secular parts of the West, are happy to celebrate the baby Jesus. He lies there in the manger, and at least in the event, he is an infant. It is others, including even of course the angel of God, who speak about him. People can perhaps enjoy the wonder of the occasion without feeling the infant Jesus makes very many demands on them.
The adult Jesus gives commandments, and while he blesses some, he declares woes to others. The adult Jesus demands a response. I think our secular society can enjoy a story of angels and shepherds and a miraculous child precisely because they think he doesn’t demand a response.
‘Mary did you know?’, and even more, the prophetic readings that we have set for our Midnight Mass, remind us that the Christ-child is the one for whom the whole world, and in a special and particular way the Jewish people, have been preparing since the dawn of time. He comes to us, not to amaze and impress, but to transform. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children. His birth, and even more, his Second Coming, will change everything.
We could think of Christmas as celebrating the Incarnation, except that easily becomes too abstract. We are celebrating the birth of a child, promised for all the ages. And the prophecies that Mary knows help her to see that her child will not simply be born in a miraculous way, and with angels to announce him, but that he’s the one through whom God will save us from our sins.
Mary did know, and the Church gives us our Midnight Mass readings so that we can know too. And by responding to the Christ-child, we can allow God to transform our lives, and everything in them.
Image: detail from a painting in the Wallace Collection, London: Philippe de Champaigne, The Adoration of the Shepherds, c.1645, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew