"Most people are happy to see Christmas as a celebration of the circle of life – which is not a bad thing, just as The Lion King is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it is moving, powerful, and inspiring".
Whenever a child is born in a family there always are two distinct stages. The actual birth is very disruptive, full of adrenaline, marked by pain, worry, rush, confusion, excitement, visits, gifts, bureaucratic procedures. Then, few days later, there is the moment in which the parents bring the new-born baby home from the hospital and can finally be alone with it, relax, take in what has happened, behold the sleeping baby, savour the miracle of the new life, consider the ways in which its presence and impact slowly expand in their lives.
Something similar happens in the yearly celebration of Jesus’ birth. The liturgy of the night focusses on the events surrounding the birth, it is full of emotions, crowded with characters, prone to folklore, even charmingly frivolous. The liturgy of the day of Christmas, on the contrary, is slower, contemplative, and can sound slightly esoteric and abstract: we are no more focussed on baby, crib, pastors, stars, and angels, but hear of “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1.3), and of Word, life, light, flesh, grace, truth. No surprise if most people prefer to join the midnight celebration but desert the mass of the day (tiredness aside, of course). In reality, the present celebration is fixed on the same child we welcomed last night, but now we are like the parents who are left alone with it and, using John’s words, take time to “behold his glory” – we let what we see speak to us in a deeper way.
“Letting things speak to us”.
Let’s pause for a moment on this expression. We often say that the naïveté of our cribs and of the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth told by Matthew and especially by Luke speak to people in a special way – and indeed we know what extraordinary hold they have on the imagination of believers and unbelievers alike. They play with powerful archetypes: a mother, a child, the night, the stars, angels. Something not dissimilar to the scene of the presentation of Simba in The Lion King and the words of the memorable song that accompanies it:
It's the circle of life And it moves us all Through despair and hope Through faith and love 'Til we find our place On the path unwinding In the circle The circle of life
And most people are happy to see Christmas just in this way, as a celebration of the circle of life – which is not a bad thing, just as The Lion King is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it is moving, powerful, and inspiring.
But there are layers in the way things speak to us. And if we are invited to celebrate Christmas twice, within an interval of just few hours, it is because the birth of this child speaks to us not only of the natural circle of life (and death), not just – to use John’s words – of a “birth of blood and of the will of the flesh and of the will of man” but also of receiving “the power to become children of God”, of being born, or reborn, “of God” (John 1.12). This child still cannot utter a word and already speaks to us of God or, rather – and here we pivot from midnight mass to the present celebration- through this child it is God himself who is speaking to us.
This is the key message of both the prologue of John’s Gospel and of the opening lines of Letter to the Hebrews. If, as we heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, in the course of history God “has spoken to our ancestors in many and various ways” (Heb 1.1) it is because at the beginning, that is before history, God is “word”, that is “eager to speak to us”. This is not simply what God does, but who God is: God does not simply communicate with us, he is communication!
And indeed, we see God doing precisely this since the beginning when we are told of his delight in conversing with Adam and Eve. This communication seemed to have been fatally jeopardised with their transgression but instead the whole Old Testament testifies to the stubborn inventiveness deployed by the Lord to preserve this dialogue despite the great distance we had put between him and us. Like a rejected lover, he continued to believe in the possibility of awakening our first love for him, he tried every possible way of speaking to our heart, as the prophet Hosea touchingly puts it (Hos 2.16).
True, to attract our attention he had to start with frightening us by speaking from a burning bush (Ex 3: 4) or through thunder and lightning, to the point that we were afraid of him – as when the people said to Moses: «You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die! " (Ex 20.18-19). Then, slowly, God taught us to perceive the true sound of his voice, as when he speaks to Elijah not in the hurricane, the earthquake or the fire, but in “the murmur of a gentle whisper” or, as other translations say, “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19.12 ). This means that to recognize the true voice of God we need to pause, listen to this silence, and contemplate or, as John says: “behold his glory” (Jn 1:14).
Jesus is called 'word' because not only his teaching, but his whole person and his life are the Father’s last and most ambitious attempt to make himself known to us: “No one has ever seen God. But God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known to us” (Jn 1.18). The letter to the Hebrews calls him the “reflection of God’s glory” (Heb 1.3) for exactly the same reason: the Father is compared to the sun and Jesus to the rays that radiate from it and reach us with their warmth and light. If we looked directly at the sun we would be blinded. But we can welcome its rays, our eyes can slowly adjust to their brightness, we can learn to “behold his glory”.
Like the parents who are finally alone with their new-born baby at home, then, lets us learn how to practice this contemplative way of looking (and listening) that takes its time, is patient, loving, persevering, dedicated – let us keep beholding the child born for us. We will discover – just as Elijah did- that through the sheer silence of this infant God is telling us something.
I will never stop marvelling at the way God totally entrusts himself to us in this child.
I will never grow tired of admiring the ways in which God finally fulfils his promise to live with us, talk with us, touch us, remain with us forever.