Shall I tell you who I feel most sorry for at Christmas? Poor Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer. He’s there with his red, shiny nose and the other reindeer poke fun up at him, don’t they? We sing, “All of the the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names, They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” Poor old Rudolph, being excluded. But, of course, this is Christmas, there is a message of hope. “Then one stormy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, Rudolph with your nose so red won’t you drive my sleigh tonight?” Wow, what a privilege! What an emissary of mercy Santa becomes in this story, choosing the reindeer most in need of a bit of cheer, of a bit of self respect and giving Rudolph this privilege. Often in life we too are given opportunities to choose and reach out to the forgotten or the mocked and we don’t seize these opportunities to be sharers of God’s mercy.
We celebrate today the birth of the Son of God, who is true God and whose life is the dawning of righteousness in the world. We have longed for His coming in the season of Advent and prepared our hearts and minds for Him. His birth we now celebrate: Heaven has come down to earth that earth may pass away and be renewed. This renewal means we can share in the life of God Himself. This is a privilege we do not and can not merit. The glory of this divine life is first given to earth hidden in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who carries the Son of God quietly and unassumingly for nine months within her. Mary must have carried God within her with apprehensiveness. Yes, the archangel had told her not to be afraid, but some uncertainty must have lingered, especially when it came to how others were going to respond as she got bigger and the child started showing. Would folk realise that the baby inside her was older than the length of time for which she had been married? What shame would that bring?
It’s hardly the beginning for the life of God on earth that we would envisage: to be hidden, to be a guilty secret almost, to be something someone would want to keep quiet about. And yet, as we spend time pondering the life of Jesus and how God dwelt in the womb of His Mother, we are also reminded how even when the Spring of eternal life has come forth out of her womb, He is to be laid in the equally surprising choice of a manger, where oxen feed on hay.
As we grow up we lose some of the innocence of our childhood: we realise not everyone is our friend and we realise we would’t want them to be anyway. We realise it can be perversely fun to be unkind to people or about people, to take which isn’t ours, to hoard rather than share, to be lazy rather than to pray. As Jesus shared fully in what it was to be a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, an adult, He kept His innocence throughout. Jesus is without sin. All He could do was the will of His Father, for they are one. The simple trust of the child is retained by the one who grows up so as to be paraded before soldiers who will strip and smite Him and nail Him to a Cross. Knowing this innocence and purity remain with the Lord makes the Cross He endures even more shocking and despicable.
This child who grows up teaches us in the sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” (St Matthew 5:10). Poor old Rudolph was mocked because of his nose, his physical appearance, how God had made him, because he was different. It is an assault on righteousness and an affront to God’s justice to treat people badly because they look different or because there’s some bit of their physical appearance which is supposedly comical. That person is God’s handiwork, knitted together in the womb of her or his mother. These words of our Lord are also a reminder to us that we are not to seek popularity, but Truth, Jesus.
Within the spirituality of the Church there has also always been a sense that not only should we not worry when we have the mickey taken out of us or when we seem to be not as fun as everyone else, but that indeed there is some merit to be had when these things happen. This is because it tampers our pride, which I want to spend a bit of time thinking about.
For certainly in English, I’m not sure about other languages, we have a problem because pride can have a very good meaning. We will have been filled with pride as we watched our loved ones take part in nativity plays or win competitions. We celebrate the achievements of folk in their job or their exams at school or university. We party when we reach another birthday. We’re relieved when we don’t make the same mistakes or commit the same sins that we have in the past. And it is right that we do so and to be proud of these achievements but these celebrations should be grounded in gratitude to God, a recognition that God is the source of life and the one in whom all our hopes are met.
But pride is also generally thought to be the root of all sins. One extra-biblical tradition is that in the beginning an angel was jealous of the attention given to human beings who had been made in the image of God. The angel thought he should have been given greater recognition. That pride led to the angel’s fall and so Satan wandered the earth. We are proud when we think we are entitled to something, when we speak too much of our rights and not enough of our responsibilities, when we put down others, when we struggle to admit we have done anything wrong.
The virtue that keeps us from being proud is humility. The word comes from a sense of the ground, the dust of the earth. On Ash Wednesday, which is 2nd March next year, the Church bids us wage the spiritual campaign of Lent with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It echoes the words of the Psalmist, “As a father pities His children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust,” (Psalm 103:13-14). In the beginning God fashioned us out of the dust of the earth and breathes like within us, forming us in His own image. Without God we are but dust.
The birth of the Saviour is our model in this embrace of the call to humility. St Paul reflects on this, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” (Philippians 2:5-6). So it is right we spend time in prayer before the crib, contemplating how God could have insisted on a nicer room, a better bed, cleaner windows - some windows to start with might have kept the draft out at least! - but He didn’t. Christ the King of the Ages is not crowned as He takes His throne on earth with orb and sceptre, but with the chilled finger of His mother in rags and the straw munched on by animals. The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph get here not by uber, horse drawn carriage or sedan chair carried by others, but by the poor, lowly donkey. The same lowly beast who will carry our Lord in to Jerusalem for His Passion and Death when he is thirty three years older. This not a birth as we would have planned it.
Many of us will be in a location we might not have expected to be in this Christmas. You might not have intended to be in London, you might have been expecting others to be with you, you might be stuck with some folk you were hoping to have packed off by now (!). It has been deeply discombobulating to have had plans interrupted and to have been living with a general malaise where we have not been able to make plans. Jesus the Saviour, whose birth we celebrate, is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, all time belongs to Him. God knows what the future will look like for all time is the present as far as He is concerned. This outlook should be evident in the way we live our lives as we see human nature and the divine nature united in the person of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, as we follow our Lord to the manger on this holy night we will see that plans can be futile and sometimes even dangerous if we are to live out the Saviour’s calls to humility. For when we look at the Scriptures we see often that plans are things which lead folk away from God. The people of the earth plan a great tower at Babel and have very high hopes for it indeed, for it will span as far up to the Heavens as possible. It’s a monumental testimony to their arrogance and pride, believing they can plan such a thing that is monstrous in the sight of God (Genesis 11). Similarly Jonah’s plans are at variance with God and the fact that he clings to the plans when God comes and tells him to go to Ninevah is a problem and a sign he is not following God’s will (Jonah 1).
So maybe this pandemic can teach us something useful in our quest for humility: namely the futility of plans, which are dangerous for they might be born out of a misunderstanding that we are masters of our future. Let us rather submit ourselves to Christ. His birth with the stable, shepherds coming to visit, the threat of Herod, the virgin conceiving out of wedlock are not as we would have planned it, but God in His infinite mercy and love planned it to the last detail, that He might dwell among us and that we might see His glory. Amen.