The Rector writes …
It would be a real Scrooge who did not look forward to Christmas (and even Dickens’ character had a change of heart) but the secular festival which it has really become is far from a true celebration of the real nature of the Incarnation. Just three days on from December 25th the Church has us remember the Holy Innocents, those children who were massacred as a frightened monarch attempted to eradicate a perceived threat to his throne (Matthew 2:13). In the face of persecution, the newly-born himself is hurried into exile and spends his earliest years away from his own people. The basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian in Rome has a famous crib over which hover angels holding the instruments of the Passion – from the beginning the shadow of a cross hangs over this birth and rightly does Simeon prophesy that: “he is destined to be a sign which is rejected – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare” (Luke 2:35).
It does us well to remember that many of our brothers and sisters – not least in the Middle East and in the land of Jesus’ birth – suffer greatly for their Christian faith. Organisations like Aid to the Church in Need constantly try to alert the conscience of the rest of the world to what is happening to Christian minorities in various parts of the world, and it is a terrible fact that more have died for Christ’s name in the past one hundred years than in all the previous centuries. Jesus told his contemporaries to open their eyes and read the signs of the times: “take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out you know that summer is near. So with you when you see all these things know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:31). Are these the end times? Is the aggression and brutality we see on all sides evidence that the consummation of all things is close? We have been told that the Second Coming of the Lord will come as a surprise, that no one will be able to pinpoint the time or place before it happens – but we also know that every day that passes is a day closer to that final judgement.
When the Christmas angels appeared to the shepherds they conveyed: “news of great joy”. It is right that we should greet the Saviour’s birth with joy as we see the ancient prophecies at last fulfilled and accept that the assumption by God of human flesh is the turning point of all history: that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, is the game-changer to end all game-changers. Once God has revealed himself by uniting himself unequivocally to the created order and offering us the definitive icon of human being then judgement has begun. The standard by which everyone will be measured is there in the Gospel. The Dominican writer, Aidan Nichols, offers this understanding of the last days: “the world inaugurated by the general judgement will be a world of wholeness and holiness, a world healed and restored; it will also be a world with bitter knowledge of the judgement on sin, of excommunication, and gifts that were fruitless, because the human person was not open to profit by them”.
This week will see Saint Vincent’s School coming to Saint James’s for their Christmas celebration. It is always a moving and happy experience to hear the children read and enact the story of Christ’s birth, and they exhibit a tender simplicity as they greet Jesus in their carols. That is as it should be: the Lord tells us: “you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless you enter it like a little child” and we, in our turn, need to approach the manger with a child-like faith. But if we fail to see that this Child is born to suffer and that his redemptive act will involve a cross, then we have failed to understand the meaning of Christmas: Bethlehem is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The last days are already upon us – they were inaugurated when Mary gave birth to Jesus. In considering what will emerge out of the Last Judgement (the direct consequence of the Incarnation) Aidan Nichols writes: “it will be a world of the most lucid moral and spiritual clarity where the mercy and justice of God are freely revealed and the thoughts of all hearts laid bare”.