It is often said that you cannot turn the clock back. In a sense, however, the Church does just that in her liturgy, in which we are inserted into Mysteries of our salvation which occurred millennia ago. At the beginning of Advent we revisited that age of yearning of the Prophets, when the parched earth seemed to groan with longing for the coming of a Messiah, whose arrival would transform the desert into a vibrant landscape of light and colour. On Christmas Day we gaze in wonder and joy on the babe in the manger, who contains within Himself the fulfilment of all the promises of the Old Testament.
The Church does not transport us back in time for the purpose of nostalgia, but rather to equip us with the supernatural sustenance we need to live in the present. Neither do we view the Mysteries of our holy Faith as mere spectators. The Church’s liturgy makes them present so that we are able to engage actively with them as participants. During Advent, we heed the call to repentance and penance so that when Christmas comes we are ready for the Christ Child to be born afresh in our hearts.
For many of us the most awe-inspiring aspect of the Nativity lies in the humbleness of its circumstances. The appearance of an angelic host which initially frightens the shepherds gives an indication of the majesty of the child born in Bethlehem. But when the shepherds hurry down from the hills they discover a baby lying in an animals’ feeding trough, with only swaddling clothes to protect His tender skin from the night air.
Leaving all trappings of royalty behind, the King of Kings tells us much about the sort of reign He has come to establish on earth. At this first coming He would not establish His sovereignty in power and glory. He came in poverty so that even the shepherds would not hesitate to approach Him, and in order that all of us might dare to befriend Him. This is so that when He returns to earth in majesty to judge the living and the dead, He will recognise us as His own.
The Incarnation makes the seemingly impossible a reality for all of us. The notion of friendship between God and man was virtually inconceivable in the ancient world. Aristotle went so far as to say that the one good we must never wish for our friends was that they become gods, because then we should surely lose their friendship. This is because friendship requires some level of equality, and the disparity between king and subjects, never mind Creator and creatures, is too immense for anything worthy of the name friendship to exist. Through the life of grace, however, the Word Made Flesh shares His own divine life with us, ennobling us and elevating us to a level on which He can meaningfully call us His friends.
St John Henry Newman describes the period between Christ’s first coming in meekness and His second advent in glory as a time of watching for a dear friend, during which we long to be reunited with Him, are always zealous in seeking Him, and are forever looking out for Him in all that happens. We make His interests our own, committing ourselves to extending His Kingdom around us in that part of creation which He has committed to our influence; we are always watching for ways in which we can minister to Him in our neighbours, especially in the poor and the sick.
The greatest token of this divine friendship which has been vouchsafed to us is the Blessed Sacrament, in which the Word who first came into the world in Bethlehem is made flesh on the altar once again at Holy Mass. Just as the shepherds would no doubt have shied away from the Christ Child had they seen Him in His majesty, so we should never dare to approach Our Lord for Holy Communion if we beheld Him there in all His glory. On both occasions, however, He comes in meekness, in order to share His life with us. This Christmas, let us accept this invitation to divine friendship with great rejoicing.
Fr Julian Large, Cong Orat, is Provost of the London Oratory