Meanings of Christmas: Bringing heaven down to earth

The story of the birth of Christ has the power to change those who contemplate it. The Right Rev Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham, explains why.

Christmas for me is not an occasion for discussion or debate. It is a time for contemplation and wonder. We enter into its meaning and mystery, it seems to me, not so much by thinking and talking about it as by the act of attention.

Consider the means by which, for most of us, Christmas has entered into our mind and imagination. Not by discussion or the reading of theological books, but by the telling and hearing of stories, by nativity plays, by poetry, by the repetition of familiar carols and hymns, by looking at pictures of the Virgin Mother and her Child.

None of these describes the mystery of Christmas in a way that is either literal or exhaustive. All are more or less allusive or symbolic. They work on us less by use of the discursive intellect (though reason is not excluded) than by attention and imagination.

I can read a story or look at a picture with or without attention. If I look for a moment and then look away, it does nothing to me. But if I listen to the story or watch the drama or look at the picture with sustained attention, and if the story or the drama or the picture has inherent power, then I shall be changed.

The story of Christmas has such power. Attention to such a story is inseparable from wonder, and wonder from love, and love from transformation. As the mystery enters my heart, or as I enter into the mystery, I find words with which to speak of it less and less adequate. As a wise man said long ago, we come at God not by knowing but by loving. And no one can love without being changed.

What is the heart of this transforming mystery? It is that (in the words of St John) "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." There is a paradox here, as we can see by looking back at the prophet Isaiah:

A voice says, "Cry!"

And I said, "What shall I cry?"

All flesh is grass,

and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

whereas the Word of God is eternal, the same yesterday, today and for ever. Human flesh is like grass. It grows out of the earth, it flowers for a day, and then returns to the earth from which it came. "Dust to dust, earth to earth, ashes to ashes." The day of our birth is the first step on the way to our funeral. How in our transience are we to lay hold of the eternal?

The saving mystery of Christmas lies in this, that the Word of God has become flesh, the eternal has revealed itself in the transient. Heaven has come down to earth and if we want to find heaven, the place to look for it is at our feet, where the child lies in the straw. There we see the wonder of the infant Word (literally, the Word that cannot speak) - as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes put it in the sermon he preached before King James I on Christmas Day 1618: "Indeed, every word is here a wonder . . . verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word; a wonder sure."

Andrewes goes on to consider the swaddling clothes, the crib and the stable. So low has the Lord come. "For a stable is a place for beasts, not for Men. So low. Well may this be said to be a sign, in this sense, to wonder at. If it be well looked into, it is able to strike any man into ecstasy."

So here is the wonder: the eternal which makes itself present in time, the omnipresent in a limited space, the immortal in immortality, greatness in simplicity, the glories of heaven in the dirt and dung of a stable. There is nowhere else to look for him and, if we look elsewhere, we shall not find him.

Why then is he here, this infant, this unspeaking Word? To point the way to heaven, which is beyond all words. Why is he here, this Word become flesh? To bring heaven down to earth, so that we, who belong to earth, may find ourselves in heaven.

That is the wonder of Christmas.

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