In this holy night...
Mike Claridge - 21st November 2011
Roundabout - December 2011
St Andrew's, West Bromwich
“In this holy night....” Those words introduce the Prayers of Intercession at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity. Held in the darkened church building late on Christmas Eve, as midnight approaches, the flickering candlelight enhances the sense of awe and wonder much loved by worshippers at the first communion of Christmas Day.
The word holy can mean different things to different people. The dictionary definitions vary. Although there’s general agreement it means something set aside or devoted to God, other definitions refer to sacred, set aside or being distinct to something that is profane. This latter can lead to the idea that the holy is somehow clean compared to the rest of existence, a sense of the Godly being distinct from the worldly. Is that what Christmas is about?
Our sanitised images of stables on Christmas cards and crib scenes fail to depict that Jesus was born in filth and stench. Christmas carols about “no crying he makes” are so far fetched as to be comical. Christmas is about a baby who yelled, vomited and soiled his “swaddling clothes” in the same way as every other baby has done before and since that birth in Bethlehem.
This is a reality that the Gospel writers would have known about. We’re familiar with the Nativity accounts of Luke (and the shepherds) and Matthew (and the Magi). At least we think we are but have you read them recently? For the best account of what the birth of Jesus really means though I’d suggest turning to the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. In John there are no shepherds or wise men, no Bethlehem or Mary or Joseph. There’s no stable either, but then again there isn’t in any of the Gospel accounts - I told you to read them again, show me where it says stable! So what about John?
John speaks about the Logos (the Greek we translate as “Word” but, for a moment I suggest you substitute “cosmos”). The Logos is an idea his first readers, in the world of Greek philosophy, would have been familiar with. Logos referred to the immense power, order, might, energy of the universe itself. Logos was the reason night followed day, spring followed winter and by which all existence was ordered. John was stating what any learnéd Greek would have known from childhood. What John states next is earth-shattering: “The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us”.
That immense power beyond all comprehension became human in the birth of Jesus. That’s not the most remarkable thing either. John uses, for the word we translate as flesh, “sarx”. He could have used “soma”, a word conveying the wholeness and perfection of the human body. Instead he uses “sarx”, correctly translated in Latin as “carne” from which we get carnal. John wants to tell us that Jesus is born right into base humanity, sharing the dirt, filth and degradation that is the reality of so much of human life.
Being holy isn’t about being seperate, clean, removed from reality. It isn’t even about being religious in the way that term is often understood. Jesus rejected so much that was religious in his own day!
God, in his birth as Jesus Christ, enters fully into the joy and pain of human existence. It is an act of complete love. That is the holiness of Christmas.