God Became Small: Homilies for the Incarnation 2016
Delivered by Fr Stuart Soley, Parish Priest on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day and the Feast of the Epiphany in Saint Mark’s Church, Fitzroy
The central and most wonderful mystery of Christmas—is that God chooses to communicate the essence of being human by being human, by emptying God’s self into the form of a human—from birth on … and in so doing challenges what you and I might think God is like. In the incarnation God reshapes the image of God.
Pope Francis, addressed the Cardinals of Roman Curia this past week amongst whom were some of his most fearsome enemies. Describing Christmas as the feast of “the loving humility of God” that upends human logic, he recalled that “God chose to be born small, because he wished to be loved,” and by being small, fragile, weak, “no one would be ashamed of approaching him, no one would fear him.” Francis said this divine logic scuttles “the worldly logic, the logic of power, of command, the pharisaic, the chance or deterministic logic,”
It is a good point.
And we have seen in the world this year, many examples of people who wish to wield power with violence—in word or action—and anxiety and fear can abound. Violence is the daily lot of many, from the wars in the Middle East and parts of Africa to the violence perpetrated in homes by the closest of relatives or trusted individuals from institutions or family. All distort the image of what it is to be human.
Another example is pertinent.
I read an account of what some of the alleged self radicalised Australian men from the suburbs to target Christians this weekend found offensive about people like you and I—Christians, that is. It was an extraordinary caricature of Christianity—some of it was taking exception to feasting and celebration. Of course, part of their tirade was against consumerism which they conveniently blamed Christianity for. We should never apologise for feasting and celebrating. The one whose birth we celebrate this night / day feasted constantly. Our central act of worship is a sacramental feast—indicating the intimate way in which God relates to us.
As I close allow me to remind us of Francis’s words: God chooses to be born small because he wants to be loved. We don’t love the fearsome huge and powerful leader …. We cannot love them. So God shows us the way. God gets vulnerable—with all that comes from the riskiness of birth and human living.
To show love. To show love means we have to be still in the centre of our being stripped bare of all argument, all fear, all justification. Alone. Trusting. Innocence.
That is how God shows love. Entering that most vulnerable place where we sometimes think there is nothing and all could easily be crushed. But that is where God is.
Not with the powerful, their boasting and fear mongering will wither and perish. Bluster and rudeness do not enhance life, only love and sheer vulnerability does—that’s what God is showing us in the birth of the Saviour. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘God is in the manger’.
Jim Wallis the American Christian activist for peace and justice addresses the widespread uncertainty of what the results of the recent elections in the United States. (Jim Wallis, Singing our way back to hope: lessons in resistance from the Christmas Carols. Sojourners, 22 December 2016. sojo.net/articles)
Many urge resistance …. And there a growing number of accounts of how this might take form.
It is enough to say that he notes that the carols with which we are most familiar brim with what I am speaking of—the smallness, the vulnerability of God. But it is so full of hope.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright!
‘Love’s pure light will win over all the hate in God’s world’, he writes, and quotes O Holy Night.
Oh Holy Night! The stars are shining brightly shining.
It is the night of the dear saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, that dawn has come. Let us commit ourselves to living out of that place in vulnerability and love.
New Years Day 2017
In one of my regular email updates that I subscribe to ArchDaily (not a blog of the Archbishop I hasten to add) the Founder and Editor in Chief, David Basulto, summarises many of my feelings about the year of which I, for one, am glad to see the end.
This 2016 has been a hectic frenetic year with complex geopolitical social, and cultural issues placing our world at a crossroads of an uncertain future. Do we look back into a nostalgia of a safe past, or do we step up and be an active part of a hopeful future? (Email communication, ArchDaily, 31 December 2016)
I want to be a part of building a hopeful place—not just on a world scale—but in a micro scale too—here in this faith community—the basic building block of our life and also inter-personal relationships of every manner and scope.
But this is the proper response of the Christian. To bend towards hope.
And as I said last week at the Christmas Masses, this takes its form starting, not from strong armed tactics or fear, but with risk, smallness and vulnerability.
The grand gesture, the puffed up achievement and claim does not afford us the ability to find the Christ child within. This is the overwhelming emotion many of us face as we commence this year. And it is always the starting point.
The Christ has to be searched out and found deep within.
On Christmas Eve we heard one of the sonnets written by the English poet and priest, Malcolm Guite. His new year’s Day sonnet is appropriate today. The church bell rang out to summon us all to something deeper and more lasting.
Not the bleak speak of mobile messages,
The soft chime of synthesised reminders,
Not texts, not pagers, data packages,
Not satnav or locators ever find us
As surely, soundly, deeply, as these bells
That sound and find and call us all at once.
‘Ears of my ears’ can hear, my body feels
This call to prayer that is itself a dance.
So ring them out in joy and jubilation,
Sound them in sorrow tolling for the lost,
O let them wake the Church and rouse the nation,
A sleeping lion stirred to life at last,
Begin again they sing, again begin,
A ring and rhythm answered from within.
Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year,
Canterbury Press, 2012, p.18
So as we hear the bells ring out this new year let us together continue that journey within throughout the coming days. For in so traversing that road … we will find Christ …. dwelling not only within our hearts but in the hearts of all we meet.
Small, and struggling to be born
Many of you know that I love discovering new words and plays on words. It is fun and I suspect I learnt this as I grew up hearing the cadences of liturgical language and song and listening to wordsmiths such as Alastair Cooke. In an article I read this week about the uncertainty that lies ahead in global diplomacy. China is rejecting the temptation to engage with the United States President-elect via twitter. The article, which appeared in the New York Times, stated that although the Chinese have a penchant for slogans they preferred to communicate with foreign leaders through ‘long, tranquilising disquisitions’. (The Age, Friday 6 January, 2017) A fabulous turn of phrase and a new word to use in a homily. Let me reassure you, I do not intend this to be a long nor a tranquilising disquisition. I will let go of that temptation.
The tensions we are all to aware of on the world scene today were present in some form at the time of Jesus birth. We heard of the terror instilled in the population by a strong arm leader of his day, Herod, and the slaughter of the innocents. We know how all this disrupted plans and, of course, it all takes place in a country under foreign occupation. Jesus was born into a world of threats and anxiety not unlike ours. But in the midst of this torment, the true Light, shines.
In a different vein, the highly regarded independent weekly, The Tablet devoted an editorial on the issue of independent reporting of news in the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that ‘the teaching of the Church is not a closed system; it does not tidy up every loose end or stifle every doubt’. (Tablet , 7 January 2017, p.2) They quote some beautiful words of Pope Francis from 2015 who said:
‘It is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened. It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.’
If this can be applied to church teaching, it applies equally to every part of our lives. The Word made flesh knows the unsettled world and the disruption at the core of his human family’s existence. But the Word made flesh understands this now. What we forget is that so often it has ‘soft flesh’ even today and we can hurt and miss the gentle and disarmingly innocent presence of God.
The Tablet concluded its editorial with the observation that:
‘Into a world of anxiety and ruthlessness, something is struggling to be born. That, perhaps, is the story of Christianity in a phrase.’
In the West, we know Christianity’s beauty, is struggling in birth. It is a real challenge being a Christian in a secular, corporately focussed, technologically obsessed, driven, cruel society dislocated from deeper values.
The hierarchical church manifests some of these traits. Pope Francis’s predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict has recently assessed his successor's papacy by saying:
‘There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is something beautiful’.
As we commemorate the visit of the magi we recognise once more that they adore the infant Christ child; not a grand ruler or successful person. We are reminded that God became small so that we might love him.
Equally, at the heart of this visitation and of the incarnation itself is a letting go. Mary conceived in her womb the Word who becomes flesh. That is unique to her but her womb, though the ark and temple in which he dwelled, is not the permanent place. She has to let go this presence into this struggling and anxious world.
She lets go too as he grows and matures into adulthood and finally at the foot of the cross. We share in the mother of God’s letting go. As a scholar in Oxford just recently wrote of us having the grace to share in Mary’s letting go:
‘Let go of the imagined Christ who has been sharped by what you hope his like; let go of the Christ who has been shaped by your fear that he’s more like what other people think he’s like; let go of the imagined Christ who has been defined by your temperament: Christ the pessimist, Christ the optimist, Christ the moralist, Christ the cynic, Christ the sop. Let go of the comfortable, comprehended Christ so that you may grow in mind, heart and soul towards the Christ who was, is and ever shall be.’ (Mark Clavier, ‘Letting go of Christ’, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/12/30/letting-go-of-christ)
So when God communicates to us it is not in ‘long tranquilising disquisitions’. It is with a beating and aching heart. He is the One who lets go of all power and influence and speaks to our hearts. We are called to be like him; to move from our tombs or wombs of safety into the brightly lit world within which he shines.