What sound most moves us? A natural one such as a thunder-clap, rain on a tin roof, or a kookaburra’s laugh? Or a more human sound, such as the weeping of a well-played violin or the weeping of those who must listen to one being played badly? A siren racing a patient to hospital? Or the wedding march as a newlywed couple embark on their new life together? Hold onto your answer as we consider a rather more theological question.
Cur Deus homo? Why did God become man? It has puzzled Christians from the beginning. The all-powerful God could have joined us or saved us in some other way. He didn’t need to empty Himself of His divine qualities, assume a human nature, grow up as a child and die as a young man.
A millennium ago St Anselm, drawing upon Scripture and the Fathers, answered as follows: human beings desperately needed to be reconciled; yet we could not bring this about because no merely human being could sufficiently atone for all we’ve done to separate ourselves from God and each other. But if we can’t do it for ourselves, it would be unjust for any other sort of being to atone on our behalf. The only solution: “God so loved the world He gave His only Son… who emptied Himself… assuming human form… even accepting death”. As God He could be and do so much more than we could to reconcile us, yet as man He could be and do those things as one of us.
This is a good explanation, but it seems to suggest God is a tough guy who would only be appeased by the self-emptying of a divine Person and the sacrifice of a human one. And so St Thomas Aquinas also drew upon the Scriptures and Tradition to explain that God assumed our nature so we could be sharers in His; “God became man so that we might become gods”. As one of us, He could inspire and teach and shape us, grace us with His Church and sacraments, lead us back with Him to heaven. God chose to orchestrate the drama of salvation through this mindboggling, unforgettable demonstration that He would rather join His creation than diminish it, rather save His creatures than let them destroy themselves.
This too is a good explanation, but it risks us being puffed up by talk of us becoming godlike. I suppose every answer has its limitations. But let me suggest one more that that I’ve been pondering this year past.
Many religions have rightly thought of God as big, bigger than anything. More powerful, infinitely so.
Everywhere, in everything. Ancient, everlasting. Transcendent, holy, unlike anything. Knowing all this about God is helpful, but it inevitably puts Him at a distance. It makes God seem remote, abstract, even terrifying. It elicits awe and trepidation, sacrifice and worship, but never love.
Yet love is precisely what God wants from us. And so He comes as a little baby – that most vulnerable of beings. He wants us to meet Him in such littleness, such helplessness, that we couldn’t be scared of Him; indeed, we couldn’t resist grasping Him to our bosom.
As many of you know, this time last year I was struck with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and totally paralysed from the neck down. I spent the following five months in hospital, gradually recovering the use of my nerves and muscles. It was a terrifying and painful experience, and I would not wish it on anyone, even if I can now say I learned a lot from it. One thing that struck me deeply, as I lay in the intensive care ward, was how this experience united me to the Christmas Babe: for I too had gone from being relatively able and powerful, to being so helpless I needed others to feed and clean me, speak and act for me.
That the all-powerful Creator would allow Himself to experience human life in all its vulnerability tells us in no uncertain terms of His tenderness towards us, His desire to be in our arms and hearts, and to hold us in His. He does not want always to be greeted with trepidation and from a distance. And here it is that Christianity has an insight into God found nowhere else: that God is love.
“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light,” declared the Prophet Isaiah tonight (Isa 9:1-7). Hannah Arendt, the great twentieth century political philosopher, once said that the greatest challenge to darkness, despair, hopelessness is… a child’s birth. The sheer spontaneity of the child, the love and hope a newborn evokes in all those around, are so powerful that she thought “freedom is guaranteed by each new birth.” Or as St Paul told us tonight, “our great God and saviour Christ Jesus gave Himself for us in order to set us free.” (Tit 2:11-14)
Christmas is a story of such a birth – indeed, it is the Story. The inauspicious circumstances could fool us into thinking it affected no-one. Yet we see it move the kings of the earth, the wisest of men, and the shepherds in the fields, the humblest. It touches ox and ass, comet and angels, the entire natural universe, visible and invisible. And the effects are extraordinary. It gave the great and the good, as well as the lowly and oppressed, such peace and joy, such reason to hope, and such freedom to act on that hope, that the dictator Herod felt deeply threatened and wiser men exhilarated (Is 9:1-7; Mt ch 1; Lk ch 2).
Are we threatened by people being loved into life and sustained in that life by a love so divine it frees them to give themselves in return and to dare to hope? Or do we find the sheer tenderness of God and what He did to be close to us thrilling?
God-become-a-baby is alongside each of us at our most vulnerable: when we are unborn, young, disabled or dying, He is there beside us; when we are abused, unwanted or detained, there He is; when we are lonely or depressed, sick of body or spirit, He is with us. The Word of God speaks for all the voiceless through a baby’s cry. To the powerless He lends His power. To the victims, His healing mercy. The newness, innocence, vulnerability, sheer littleness of the Christmas God says all this to us.
Sometimes the Herods of this world seem to have the upper hand: in the ever-intensifying persecution of Christians and others in the Middle East and elsewhere, so that only last week 25 people, mostly women and children, were killed when terrorists bombed a Women’s Chapel near the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo; in the wars and civil unrest in many places, including the siege of Aleppo coming to its denouement only after awful bloodshed and destruction; the biggest mass migration of peoples since the Second World War consequent upon so much civil unrest and economic uncertainty; the extraordinary developments in the politics even of peaceful nations, reflecting widespread popular dissatisfaction.
In times of such uncertainty – which of course occur in every age – our right instinct is to return, year after year, to the crib to recall the promise of the newborn Prince of Peace. As we hear and sing His story, we are enabled to look evil in the eye and say ‘I will not bow.’ For what is the most affecting sound in the world? Survey after survey has found this: it is the cry of a newborn baby, an infant’s cooing laugh, or a child’s first words. Only the cry, laugh and words of the Christmas Babe can guarantee our freedom and promise joy to the world.
I pray that the infinite yet tiny God, the vulnerable yet all-powerful God, the ancient yet newborn God, will bring you and all your loved ones renewed hope and confidence this Christmas. Hold Him to your heart as He holds you to His. God bless you all!
This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity of the Lord, at St Mary’s Cathedral on 25 December 2016.