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The Depth of the Message
The Depth of the Message

The Depth of the Message

Second Sunday of Christmas. Fr Peter Harries challenges us to face up to the demands of the Christmas message in all its profundity. (Our sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany can be found here.)

Todays’s gospel is also the gospel for Christmas morning Mass. Once again we read St John the Theologian (also known as St John the Divine)’s profound theological proclamation of the incarnation. Most of us missed it on Christmas Day, going to the Vigil or the Midnight Masses and listening to stories of a baby born far from home and laid in a manger, of rustic shepherds and peace—singing angels. Stories that are much easier to digest than this Prologue of St John, the introduction to John’s Gospel. But John is telling us the wider significance of there being no room in the inn, of the new-born baby Jesus being laid in the manger, of Jesus being a child of David’s royal lineage (with more than a few unsavoury characters mentioned). If we remain simply with the narrative of the nativity stories, they remain stories; beautiful stories yes, inspiring stories perhaps, but stories without any great context or depth. John helps us to see their true meaning. The pictures on our Christmas cards may be beautiful but what is their deeper significance?

Our first reading from Ecclesiasticus talks of Wisdom pitching her tent in Jacob and wielding authority in Jerusalem among the people who are the inheritance of the Lord. St John starts tells us that the Word who is God, is the source of life and light. John could just as easily reflected theologically about the Wisdom who is God, and seeing Jesus as the Wisdom of God incarnate, and that is a very fruitful and orthodox theology. Yet St John talks of Word, with implications of reason, of understanding and of revealing.

St John tells us that the Word became a human person, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. So we start to grasp that this baby born far from the family home in Nazareth is indeed God born on earth, away from home and shortly to go into exile at the beginning of his human life. We start to understand that perhaps we should imitate those illiterate smelly shepherds out in the fields who are lost in wonder, and not the learned well-housed narrow-minded scribes in Jerusalem. We can affirm the message of the angels, and bear peace not hatred to one another. We start to realise that Jesus is the Messiah, born of David’s royal line a son of Joseph in David’s own city of Bethlehem. We can commune with Mary the Virgin Mother who stores up all these things in her heart (and memory). The Word through whom all creation came to be has become incarnate. The beautiful strands of the infancy stories told us in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels are woven together as St John spells out their deeper meaning.

St John tells us of another John, St John the Baptist who was sent by God. Sent not as the light of the world but to point out the light of the world. Yet St John the Baptist was killed, the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first martyr saint of the New Testament. The world did not know the Word of God – as St John tells us – neither did it acknowledge his cousin and forerunner, St John the Baptist. This was not an accident; this had to be as the world was fallen, corrupted. But God allowed his Word, his Wisdom to be crucified for us and our salvation upon the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, as St Paul writes.

Nor will the world always want to know us, as children of God with our message of repentance and forgiveness, of mercy and peace. Mercy disturbs our notions of justice and seeking to better ourselves at the expense of others (near or far away by climate change perhaps). The message of Christmas is too often relentlessly exploited commercially – the subliminal message being ‘I keep Christmas best by shopping more’. Rather, living a life of mercy means trying to welcome and care for those like baby Jesus are far from anywhere to call home. Let us heed the message of the angels and be people of peace to all creation and not just to our friends. Let us praise God for his wonderous creation and our still more wonderous redemption.

In our second reading, the Letter to the Ephesians tells believers then and now that we have been chosen to be holy, adopted children of God. St Paul prays that we might have the spirit of wisdom, bringing us to the full knowledge of God with the rich glories God has promised us his saints, that we will inherit. God has promised us life with him, let us believe and live out lives of mercy and peace.

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 24:1-2,8-12 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-18 | John 1:1-18

Image: from the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.

fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.
peter.harries@english.op.org

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