Scripture reflections on the readings from each Mass of Christmas day.
Automatically and with every justification Isaiah’s ‘people’, is taken to refer to his own people of Israel – the people he is addressing in his own day. A true successor of David is to be born. Imagine that we can universalise his vision. ‘The people that walked in darkness’ – then can refer also to the whole of humanity. We stand then in a total solidarity with the whole of humanity before God – bringing the faces of people possessed of the weeping, joyous certainty that ‘there is a child born for us…. Prince of Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end’.
The God of humanity is to be defined as the God who precisely is with humanity. This vision is one ‘pre-owned’ by the whole of humanity and our privilege is to be part of that humanity. Our task, as Christians, is urgently to tug at humanity’s sleeve, to point at the birth of a child to remind humanity of the close nature of the God of all. ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us. The seeing of a great light is for God’s people – the whole wide world of them.
This thunderous vast theme is taken up by St Paul. ‘God’s grace has been revealed and has made salvation possible for the whole human race’. This does not crush but ratify all other forms of dialogue. It is a question of both/and. The Bible invites Christians to reaffirm the original insight (reflected in both the Old and New Testaments) that God, the Spirit of God, is defined as That Presence which has been and is in universal dialogue with the whole of humanity. Christ, as the revelation of that dialogue is normative for Christians. That fact, rather than set them in opposition to non-Christians, should establish them first in a solidarity with all others as recipients of the divine dialogue. Then should Christians ally with others in seeking to be ever more receptive partners in that dialogue. Only within this context does it make sense to present Christ as the epitome of dialogue between God and humanity.
The sense of the universal nature of this dialogue in Christ shines through the first book of the revelation of God – the whole of nature, and hence then through Scripture – despite the tribal and particularistic necessities of history. We belong explicitly to a place and a time. We are always called out of that truth of our existences to a wider, fuller, more universalist perspective and viewpoint. God prompts us to look up by respecting our need to watch our feet!
So it is not as if the dialogue which culminates in Christ exists in a “dialogue vacuum” and then is let out into that vacuum with the arrival of Christianity. The story of the dialogue which culminates in Christ is set alongside and within a model of all the long, rich, productive forms of dialogue before and after Christ which God is involved in with all humanity. The dialogue began with the Big Bang – or if you will from all eternity. If now Christians seek to speak of Christ – it is not into a void of dialogue-less humanity. Rather the message of Christ only makes sense if Christians can set it within the rich myriad forms of dialogue which have existed and go on existing wherever humanity seeks God in whatever frame of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Compassion and human service are not and cannot be confined to the Christian dialogue. All these things exist elsewhere in related but diverse guises. Christians are those who believe quite simply that all these dialogues are taken up, defined freshly, epitomised, enkindled, refined, enriched and affirmed – in the ‘man Jesus. Christianity stands in solidarity with the whole of humanity in the endless dialogue it has with the truth, with God in the form of all religions. Then and only then can it dare to claim that it can lead humanity to its own vision of Dialogue. It can only do this through the ‘loving service of all that exists’. (Pope St John Paul 11, in Novo Millennio Ineunte) And usually not with words, but with actions.
To get back to Paul! His message is that if Christians truly do enter this dialogue with God, as revealed in Christ – then they will have “no ambition than to do good”! If the Church assumes an attitude of power other than the power of service, then it does the dialogue with God it claims to embody the gravest disservice.
“Do not be afraid. Listen. I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.” Luke seeks to set the birth of Christ firmly in history – because he defines history as the only vehicle for divine dialogue. Most modern definitions of history cannot cope with such a definition. He also wants to define this dialogue as a universal one – it is to be with all people: “peace to all people who enjoy his favour.” God does not, cannot deny our freedom to be partners in dialogue. We are free to refuse. This is a totally revolutionary and unthinkable form of dialogue, beginning with the birth of a baby which Luke surrounds with the wonder of the divine – glory, hosts of angels, words of reassurance against human incredulity and terror. Joy, rightly, is the overriding theme. Joy that at last the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’ of dialogue have come together on this night in this place. It’s as if the energy of the first milli-second of the Big Bang has been collapsed into one frozen scene of time and then that that scene is to be played out in an ever expanding, enriching dialogue between God and Man. That is Luke’s vision and it prompts his description of the alpha and omega image here.
‘Today a Saviour has been born to you’. Salvation is the key because it is the end for which dialogue has been the means. God does not wish to join us simply for a pleasant chat. God is to be defined as the Divine who wants to join us to save us for a loving endless dialogue! Then we can ‘chat’ joyfully forever. Or, more likely – enter the great silence where words are no longer necessary!
The vision of Isaiah is repeated and continues to be global in intent: ‘This the Lord proclaims to the ends of the earth’. Isaiah’s God addresses every human being – even if his focus must be Zion – to announce the epoch changing news that God is to save the daughters of Zion – Jerusalem. If we reach the central theme of Isaiah that God speaks to his people and to the whole of humanity with words of salvation and ultimate hope, then humanity is not lost, unredeemed in suffering or sin, forsaken, forgotten, condemned. It must re-name all it holds dear to reflect what Isaiah now proclaims: the partnership which lifts humanity to a saving conversation with God. So now they shall be called The Holy People; the Sought After; the City not Forsaken; The Lord’s Redeemed. Did these words blow the minds of Isaiah’s hearers? They should have. They have not become dust but remain as chiselled on diamonds. God saves.
We must re-cast our minds into a totally different frame of thinking. God is to be defined mysteriously as our ultimate lover! Humanity is ‘sought after’. Does anyone really act as if this were true? The words reverberate, and we vibrate gently in their wake. Our antennae are not yet totally corroded, and we can still pick up the long-lost echoes of this, the real ‘Big Bang’. The long-lost conversation continues – we are held and sought after to join in the dialogue of love through every second of our lives.
The letter to Titus takes up the theme after being convinced that those sought after down the long record of the Old Testament have been overwhelmed by their experience of revelation in Jesus when ‘the kindness and love of God our saviour for mankind were revealed’. Isaiah’s vision has been realised. The letter has one addition to make to that tidal vision – the only reason for God’s loving salvation is compassion – but not through any good humanity may have done. So, the Holy Spirit can now be poured out on all, humanity can be justified by grace, we can re-name ourselves as heirs looking forward to eternal life. It is the very essence of Christianity to exist to bring this ‘Good News’ to all humanity.
Luke gives us the idea of the God who seeks fields outside a village and some shepherds who in turn say, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened’. They repeat what they have been told by the angels about the child. Luke then sums up the inexpressible by having Mary treasure all the words up to ponder them. Well she might – a lifetime of pondering! There is humanity’s total history to ponder – its gradual realisation that it has been sought after to be drawn into a dialogue with God – but now a dialogue transformed by the birth of a baby who is believed to be somehow the Son of God. This changes all the names of everything. This is what lies behind the meaning of the word “incarnation”. Finally – what Christians have grown so used to calling ‘THE Incarnation’ is now increasingly being seen to be the finale of an ‘Incarnation’ which began with the first instant of time and the first appearance of matter. We are part of a ‘Christ-soaked universe’ – as Richard Rohr so powerfully argues in his book “The Universal Christ”. We only have to read the Prologue to John’s Gospel to find that this central part of the Christian tradition is not new.
Isaiah cannot contain his vision of the universal nature of the truth which is exploding in him. Words can hardly express all he feels: in the sight of all the nations, all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. In every radiant metaphor of transcendent power he attempts to describe the inexpressible, the only good news ever heard! That God is a God who consoles and does not condemn, a God who redeems and does not forget. Humanity is the object of love. Isaiah must set his scene with reference to Jerusalem or Zion, but he transcends the particular and speaks of mountains, all the nations, the ends of the earth. God saves Jerusalem so that all humanity near and far will understand and see that God is not to be defined as anything other than the One who saves everyone.
The author of Hebrews is overwhelmed too by what he believes has happened in his time. God as the one in dialogue, the seeker and saviour has broken every name, category and human description of the nature of the dialogues of the past. But in our own time, he has spoken to us ‘through his Son.’ Then unbelievably he expands his canvas, pursued by the realisation and implication of what he is claiming: the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is.’ If this author had lived today he might have added ‘13.8 billion years ago He spoke in creation and through his Son made everything that there is.’ Instead he must content himself with reflecting that ‘He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature.’ Not bad for 2000 years ago!
As Christians we might have grown too familiar with the truths first expressed so freshly here – we have had them percolated through the sieves of two thousand years of the development of doctrine and a church grown heavy with power.
In John’s prologue we come to perhaps the greatest expression of that impact of the experience of Christ. The Word of God announced as saviour in the past, now becomes a man. This belief inspires the writing but also takes human capacity and writing to the very edge of its nature. At its very edge, but giving glory to the whole, we have the prologue of John’s Gospel – the greatest visionary poem of the meaning of the coming, life, death and resurrection of Christ.
John, in flashes of brilliant, word-craft delves with us into the marrow and depths of the mind of God in identifying for us the nature of Christ. John moves from the particularity of the experience of Christ in word, life, death and rising – to the truly awful but attractive canvas of the divine – pre-creation, pre-worlds, pre-eyes, pre-words.
We may say to John: ‘You sit at Jesus’ right side at the supper of his death, leaning on his breast, and then in old age you can write this’: ‘In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ Now John cried as he wrote this in still utter incomprehension at the loveliness of what he can see and know. Along the furrow of fields, beaches and borders, of the hands of all men and women working and dying – John has discerned the contours of the truth of God in his desire to speak words of saving grace with his world. Therefore, John takes us to the beginning before we began and says God was in dialogue with his Word then and this dialogue was who he was and is and ever shall be. Then all things had their being through this dialogue – all things had their being through him – the Word. ‘All that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men.’ God constitutes light for all men and women. We are who we are because God the dialoguer, dialogues us into existence through the dialogue he has before time began with the Word of God. Ever after that we are dying to get back to that divine dialogue.
St Augustine came to this truth – our hearts are truly restless until they rest in him. No wonder we seek and crave the conversation with God even if it takes us a lifetime. Light comes to us in the darkness – the Word was the true light that enlightens all men. Now John knows that the world did not know Christ and his own did not know him. But to all who do accept him (no previous experience is required) he gave power to become children of God. So, John laughs through his tears of joy and finally says: ‘The Word was made flesh, he lived amongst us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ John knew this as he knew the man Jesus.
David Jackson, now retired, worked in secondary and adult education, first as a priest and then as a married family man. He was the first Coordinator of the Bradford Interfaith Education Centre and Inspector for RE and became the Inter-religious Relations Coordinator for the Diocese of Leeds. An on-going fascination with the concept of dialogue experienced in interfaith relations led to these reflections on the readings of the Sunday Lectionary, ‘Dialogue of the Heart’. He ‘graduated’ as a Laudato Si Animator in 2020 and advocates care for ‘our common home’ and support for all who work for justice, peace and non-violence.