The Symbols of Christmas

The Nativity of the Lord

Luke 2,15–20

Early in September the British public were hearing that Christmas dinners were in jeopardy because there would be a shortage of turkeys and trimmings including the essential “pigs in blankets”. Plastic toys from China, and other essentials were also being delayed. Midwinter festivities are now so thoroughly pagan that the meaning of the nativity of Jesus Christ is ever more difficult to uncover. So in the words of St. Luke, “let us go to Bethlehem” and reflect upon history’s greatest miracle – the mystery of the convergence of human and the divine – hidden in the birth of a boy child.

Behind the events in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels are centuries of Hebrew experience that humanity had somehow been marred, a deep scar running through every generation, and the hope of paradise lost. The Patriarch Jacob had dreamt of a ladder between earth and heaven, reconnecting the communion of the human and the divine. For centuries religiously sensitive people looked in hope for signs that God would restore his divine energy to mankind. Christianity grew from these Hebrew roots. The long awaited sign that God had indeed acted was revealed at the river Jordan to John the Baptist, who seeing Jesus said, “behold the lamb of God” [John 1;29], a manifestation endorsed by the voice of God, “this is my beloved Son”. [Luke 3;22 and Matthew 3;17] Yet many did not see the signs and were frequently offended by the words and actions of Jesus.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the background in which the birth narratives unpack the meaning of the incarnation. The Gospels written forty or more years later do not concern themselves with pure history for even the exact date and place are uncertain; they are presenting signs, frequently revealed by paradox. The greatest example of this is the star in the firmament overshadowing the lowliest of births on earth. Two diametrically opposed signs, focused over the City of David bringing together the entire Messianic tradition from King David and the Prophets, “you will bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David”. [Luke 1;31]

This cosmic symbol gathers the whole of creations purpose, in which humble shepherds and wise gentile astrologers are the first to respond to God descending to the human world in an act of recreation.

The Virgin is also a sign, “a star of Bethlehem,” for this gentle, self effacing, mother pointing only to her child becomes a template of “being church” in which humility of the soul is the preparation for the challenges of fidelity. Overshadowing the whole of the Christmas story, Mary is the icon of the new Eve and also the woman who becomes the ladder in whom heaven and earth are joined, as we shall see again at Candlemas. These with other signs are gradually opening up a deeper understanding of Christ’s birth by the Gospel writers in the years after his death and resurrection when the Holy Spirit had opened minds, as St. Paul said, “and lifted the veil”. [II Corinthians 3;16]

The veil is always present in the hearts and minds of those who are closed to the possibility of divine energy ever entering human lives. Such people are satisfied with the belief that the resources they need for life are all within themselves even the overcoming of evil. Yet more and more evidence builds up that this existence without God ends in loneliness and life without a destiny or purpose. Living has for most people been a journey of searching for self understanding and truth for personal development and renewal. The Star of Bethlehem that caused men to travel from foreign lands, for shepherds to leave their sheep to kneel at the place of the a unique child’s birth that still brings hope to those who still sense their fate, is linked to God’s greater plan for all His creation.

A blessed Nativity to everyone!

Fr. Geoffrey Neal
Vicar General, NCC UK

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