Pandemic Letter 19 – Christmas Message (18/12/2020)

The musical Fiddler on the Roof, the original Broadway production of which was first staged in 1964 is based on life in a Jewish village in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and a father’s hopes for his daughters.  The famous song, Miracle of Miracles, can be read as a prayer:

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles –
God took a Daniel once again,
Stood by his side and – miracle of miracles-
Walked him through the lion’s den!

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles –
I was afraid that God would frown,
But like he did so long ago, at Jericho,
God just made a wall fall down!

When Moses softened Pharaoh’s heart, that was a miracle.
When God made the waters of the Red Sea part, that was a miracle too!
But of all God’s miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is that out of a worthless lump of clay,
God has made a man today.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles –
God took a tailor by the hand
Turned him around and – miracle of miracles
Led him to the Promised Land!

When David slew Goliath (yes!), that was a miracle.
When God gave us manna in the wilderness, that was a miracle too.
But of all God’s miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one I thought could never be:
God has given you to me.

Fiddler on the Roof 
portrays a personalist understanding of God, and of human relationships. 

St Francis of Assisi, at Christmas 1223, brought the baby Jesus “down to earth”, with his portrayal of the stable in Bethlehem, in the village of Greccio.  The stable-with the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the animals, the shepherds, and with the wise men from the East – to be found at the base of the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral each year, is part of a tradition of a personal God, a God with whom we can have relationship, whose origins stretch back to Creation itself.  St Francis of Assisi, in promoting the custom of devotion to the baby Jesus in the stable, is part of the tradition of a personal God – not Aristotle’s remote God, nor the God of the 18th century deists, the watchmaker God, who set the world going, but who is far removed – nor the God of modern-day agnostics and atheists.

This tradition of the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem is encouraged by Pope Francis who has urged the “beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas”, and “the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares”.

Both the Hebrew and Christian understanding of God is of a personal God with whom one enters into friendship, a God who loves us like a spouse loving his or her beloved, like a father or mother loving a child.  The Hebrew Bible abounds with accounts of the personal God with whom we enter a relationship. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, as well as Jonah and Job, all had a personal relationship with God – as did the prophets, and the psalmists.  The Hebrew Bible depicts eyeball to eyeball relationships with God, certainly giving glory to God, praise, sorrow for sin, petition – but also upset, annoyance, anger: Why did you let this happen to me? Why am I in this predicament? Why are you treating me so? The Hebrew Bible depicts full-blooded relationships with God, involving drama, conflict and all the human emotions. There is nothing effete about this.

St Matthew and St Luke each deal explicitly with the childhood of Jesus.

St Matthew’s perspective is that of St Joseph who is told on four occasions by an angel in a dream – take Mary as your wife, flee into Egypt, return from Egypt, withdraw to Nazareth. St Joseph’s dreams are an answer to perplexity – an unexpected pregnancy, a tyrant who would murder the child Jesus, continuing danger from the tyrant’s son, the responsibilities of a husband, a father.

St Luke provides a more detailed account of Jesus’ birth, from the perspective of Mary, drawing a contrast with the birth of St John the Baptist.  The archangel Gabriel appears to Mary.  An angel appears to the shepherds, telling them of the birth of a Saviour. Then a multitude of angels appear, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased. Jesus is presented in the Temple, and the family return to Nazareth. Later when Jesus is 12 years of age, there is the account of him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.

The two accounts read as if St Matthew and St Luke, aware of the other, wish to each provide a distinct account with minimal repetition. The accounts are separate but not overlapping, not inconsistent.

The four Gospel accounts of Jesus are about a real living person in a particular time and place, in particular circumstances – and about God who intervenes in human history, who becomes incarnate, one of us.

The birth of Jesus is no passing historical event. It is a new beginning of history, the central event that provides perspective on all that has gone before, and all that goes after. Christians count the years, from before, and after Christ.

We do not have one, but four, Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, each of the New Testament writers, including St Paul, provides an interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is impossible for a single writer to sum up the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The life of Jesus of Nazareth is mysterious and inexhaustible, giving rise to differing but true perspectives.  Each of us, if we remain true to Christ, provides a perspective on the life of Christ in our own life.

This is a time for children, a time when we can be with our spouse and our friends. In a world where relationships are so calculating, so pragmatic, so utilitarian, we need to spend time with our children and grandchildren, with our spouses, with our friends. We need to value others for themselves, regardless of their characteristics, regardless of what they can bring us. We need time to love others. Christmas is the time for us to do what others want, not what we want.

All this presupposes faith. Without faith, one will not understand Jesus of Nazareth, nor understand his human and divine origin, nor understand his demands. The one who reads the Gospels without faith, and celebrates Christmas, with good cheer and gifts, has but some understanding of what this is all about, an understanding to be enriched by faith. God seeks a personal relationship with you, with me, with us, with all its difficulty, with all its changeability, a relationship which involves constant change on my part, overcoming myself – with all the challenges of that. One cannot let the baby Jesus into one’s heart, and expect that nothing will change. Letting the baby Jesus into one’s heart will change one’s life forever, change one’s life constantly.

I wish you a happy and holy Christmas – and in the New Year all that your heart yearns for!

Michael McAuley