It is the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay which enters our hearts at Christmas. This recognition that it can only be the risen Christ whom we encounter seems strange and wrongly timed, yet the atmosphere of the liturgy drives us to make the connection. For this is above all else the day of light.
The collects for the Midnight Mass of Christmas and for the Easter Vigil have a close, almost uncanny resemblance. 'You have made this night holy with the splendour of Jesus Christ our Light.' 'You have brightened this night with the radiance of the Risen Christ.' Both nights are referred to as 'holy night' and the readings of each liturgy focus on light and glory.
The celebration of what we now call Christmas was not in origin concerned with the birth of Christ at all but with his Baptism. In his descent into the waters and his rising up, was seen both his manifestation, his epiphaneia, and also the prefiguring of his resurrection, and ours. While the conventional focus on 25 December has, since Constantine, weakened the original emphasis on light and resurrection, the Christmas season still reaches its climax on the Feast of the Baptism.
To see the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries. Together they constitute the basic framework of God's activity in and beyond history and time, as they form the heart of Christian faith and hope. Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christmas, Easter has no meaning. Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh. The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.
So at midnight on the feast of the incarnation we celebrate Christ as God of God, Light of Light. But the Christ whom we greet is the adult, mature Christ, the rabbi, the friend of Galilean and Jerusalem outcasts, the leader of the attack on the Temple, the rebel hanged in the outer darkness. He does not stay an infant but shines with his mature and transformed humanity.
The light of Christ is a persistent light. It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation, disaster and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them, or making sense of them. The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions. It is a persistent and defiant light. And its persistence is paradoxical. For the truth of the gospel of incarnation and resurrection stands in contradiction to, and seems to be contradicted by, the realities of a world in which there is still no room, and where the dead bodies pile up, inexplicably, meaninglessly, in Somalia, Bosnia, Ireland.
Is the light of Christ then no more than an illusory comfort, a false reassurance that all is well when in fact all is clearly unwell in the 'demented inn' of the world? Certainly religious light is often of this illusory kind. But the gospel of incarnation and resurrection cannot be preached in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaningless death.
It is these two realities which provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ. For it is as the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and as the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persistence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical process, lights in the world.
The light of this holy night is not a light of explanation. Yet it is a simple light, a light which penetrates to the heart of humanity and of creation. And it is only as it penetrates, simultaneously drawing and repelling, illuminating and blinding, that we come to understand the power of that light. It is a transforming light. As Paul says, we are being changed into the likeness of the Lord whose glory we have seen.
The Rev Kenneth Leech is community theologian at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate, east London.Reuse content