Giving birth is a really messy experience. It makes me smile when in TV programmes and films all that’s needed is a single towel and a bowl of hot water and a few minutes later a smiling, though slightly red baby appears. Sadly, Mary and Joseph couldn’t share the news of the safe arrival of their new born child - and there’s a joke coming here just to warn you - Mary and Joseph couldn’t call anyone when Jesus was born and do you know why? Because there was no Zoom at the inn.
Let’s look at this image of being born, first in relation to our Baptism. The Christian is born as all human beings from his or her mother. This is true of the messy occasion often in hospital. But we are also born again in our Baptism. Nicodemus asks Jesus in John 3: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus’ answer is “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven without being born of water and the Spirit.” St Ambrose exhorts us to recall regularly this fact of our Baptism. One way we do this when not in a pandemic is by having Holy Water by the doors of churches. It doesn’t much matter whether we can remember our Baptism or not. I can’t remember mine but that doesn’t make it less valid, indeed it reminds me that God has watched over me from before I can remember. I can’t remember my earthly birth but I know that happened!
We can all know certain details of our Baptism: someone else will have done it, usually a priest. He will have poured water on us and said ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ St Ambrose tells us though not to focus on what we can see but on “the grace of the mysteries.” Yes, there will have been water present, Ambrose goes on, but this is an ancient mystery “prefigured in the origin of the world itself” where in Genesis 1:1 we’re told the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. It’s prefigured in the waters of the flood, which Noah’s ark navigated faithfully (Genesis 9). The waters of Baptism are prefigured in the waters of the Jordan in which Naaman the Syrian was told to dip himself by the prophet Elisha (II Kings 5).
Moving on from Baptism, St Paul in his writings talks twice using this image of being reborn. When he talks about all the people who saw Jesus raised from the dead he goes through a list, beginning with Peter and then the rest of the twelve apostles and then larger groups of believers and then last in this list is Paul himself. He refers to himself in this context as “one untimely born” (I Corinthians 15:8). A subtext running through Paul’s letters is his slight insecurity that he hadn’t been one of the twelve apostles. Perhaps some of the Christian churches had even pointed this out to him: “Who are you to tell us what to do, you weren’t even one of the twelve?!”
The second time Paul uses this image of childbirth is his beautiful discourse on the Holy Spirit in Romans 8 where he writes: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” When we hear of groaning in labour pains, we might think of nurses standing around and saying, ‘Push.’ Well, when God created the world He knew Adam and Eve would fall and that He would need to send His Son to redeem us. We hear from the Old Testament at Christmastime to remind us that the Wonderful Counsellor was long-promised; the beautiful feet of the one who brings good news were long-awaited. The world was longing for thousands of years for this moment that we celebrate today. It’s as if, the whole world seeking redemption says to Mary, ‘Push’ that her Son might be born. Christ’s birth therefore will be greeted by angels, by shepherds and by Wise Men. The ends of the earth will come from afar to see this event, this birth which set the world on a different course. Hear the earth give a sigh of relief as the King of Kings enters His manger throne.
Both these references to giving birth in St Paul’s writings are part of the desire in all Christians to want to be in that stable on this night. The Shepherds hear the heavenly chorus and their response is: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” It’s a response that we don’t see to the same extent at other Christian Festivals but it runs through all our carols: “O come let us adore Him … O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie … What can I give Him, poor as I am?” The Bidding Prayer used traditional at Carol Services in the Church of England for the last hundred years articulates it thus: “be it this Christmastide our care and delight in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass.”
This desire to be there, in the manger, is seen also in the creation of Nativity Scenes. But this desire to be present won’t be met just by ever larger and more elaborate straw-filled sheds with figures. This desire God has given His Bride, the Church, only makes sense if it can be fulfilled sacramentally. If we were there at the birth of the child one of the things I suspect we’d all be desperate to do - certainly I would - is to hold the baby. (Now, we might not say that and it might not be appropriate because of fear of infection etc etc) but that’s what we’d want. And remember the words of St Ambrose I quoted earlier and apply them to what we see here at Mass: “Consider not the bodily forms, but the grace of the mysteries.” The grace of this mystery of the Mass is that we really will have before us the same person as was born in that manger, Christ the Lord. And we kneel like the Wise Men did and we bring Him homage as they did and we leave our flocks behind - our worldly cares - like the shepherds did and we have come to this place.
The Sacramental life of the Church enables us to be really with Jesus: to behold His Body and Blood, born of the Blessed Virgin, cradled in the hands of the priest at the altar; to hear the same words of forgiveness Jesus spoken to those who cried out in His earthly ministry, “Have mercy on me, a sinner;” to receive at Confirmation the gifts of the Holy Spirit, whom our Lord poured out on the disciples; to witness to the love of Jesus for His Church, as those who are married remind us is a vocation we all share; to know in our bodies the Resurrection of Jesus, as we are when the priest anoints our hands and our foreheads with oil praying for restoration. The Sacraments teach us that Christmas isn’t a huge birthday party for someone born in human flesh 2020 years old: but that Jesus is alive today and living in the Church.
When women are expecting there’s usually all sorts of tips given to them to hurry things up a bit: eat hot curry, go for a run, jump up and down, have a hot bath and I’m sure you know more. We’re to have that desire in us in our daily livings to hurry up the birth of Jesus in the hearts of men and women throughout our nation. Too many claim to have got life sorted without the Lord and they’re heading for destruction! We help Christ be born in their hearts by encouraging them to come to Mass and speaking of the benefits we see in our own life. We help the birth of Christ in their hearts by washing their feet and forgiving them. We help the birth of Christ in their hearts by showing them the depths of His radical love.
When we look in the Crib, then, let’s see ourselves reborn and value our baptismal identity. Do you celebrate your baptism? Do you even know when your baptism was? Maybe try to find out the date and mark it as the day you were united to Christ whose birth we celebrate today. But let’s just not know ourselves there in the stable but all those around us and work for their rebirth. A start is to look around us in this Church and imagine us all of us having a knee to bend, worship to offer, flocks we have left behind in search of Jesus. But know the whole world is called to be here to worship the Saviour. Amen.