Today’s the Day
Christmas. Fr Benjamin Earl preaches on the great beginning of our salvation. (Our sermon for Sunday 26 December can be found here.)
There is a widespread custom in our churches of opening the celebration of the Mass during Christmas night with the solemn proclamation of the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord taken from the martyrology.
In fact there is an equivalent text for every day of the year, listing the various saints celebrated that day; but normally the martyrology reading begins simply by saying what the date is. Not so for today. It is not enough to place today’s celebration on 25 December, but it has to be understood in the context of all that had come before: the creation of the universe, the great flood, the calling of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the anointing of David as King and the prophecies of Daniel.
Nor does the proclamation limit itself to the history of God’s chosen people, but it also gives us the reckoning according to Greek and Roman calendars: the ancient Greek Olympiad, the year since the founding of the city of Rome – where I write these words – and the regnal year of Cæsar Augustus. These are the people who had walked in darkness; these are the people who lived in a land of deep shadow: whether Romans following their Emperor, or Greeks crazy about sport, or the people of Israel called by the Lord.
For in many and various ways, through ages beyond number, the Lord called humanity whom he had formed in his likeness: in the time of Noah, of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of Daniel and the prophets. And yet still they walked in darkness, turning from the Lord’s call. We look to the Greeks and Romans as the foundation of our civilisation, and however enlightened they might have appeared, still they lived in a land of deep shadow, not hearing the Lord’s call. Whether through obstinacy or ignorance, humanity did not walk in the ways of the Lord.
Today that changes. ‘Today,’ proclaims the angel, ‘a saviour has been born to you.’ Today the shepherds in the darkness of the night saw ‘a great light’: not just the glory of the Lord shining around them, but the ‘Light from Light’ who is the saviour incarnate born today of Mary. Today, at a particular moment in the history of the world and the history of God’s people, and in a particular place, Bethlehem, the town of David, God comes forth into the world. Of course Christians realise that this is only the beginning. It is not Christ’s birth that saves us, but rather his death. Nevertheless, beginnings are important, and the manner of Christ’s coming is itself illuminating. He does not come, at least not for the moment, as a warrior descending from the heavens in some fiery chariot. Rather he comes among us from the flesh of the Virgin Mary and in the form of a helpless baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. He lies in the feeding trough of the beasts, a sign of his vulnerability, but also a sign that he comes to feed us beastly people, and so take away our sinful beastliness.
We gather then in the darkness of Christmas night, today, the twenty-fifth day of December, in the two-thousand, seven hundred and seventy third year since the foundation of the City of Rome, and so on and so forth, but in particular the two-thousand and twenty-first year of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to receive among us the light of the world, to receive in our hands the one who once lay in a manger, swaddled now in the form of bread, so that the darkness of night may be cast out from us, and we may begin to walk in his light.
We know there is still darkness in the world, but the light has come, and the light is in us, and it is our task as Christians to take it out, to take him out, and to proclaim with the angels, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.’
Image: detail from La Natività by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) at the Basilica di San Francesco, Lower Church photographed by Frans Vandewalle