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Heaven and earth in little space

Celebrating the day and the child that changed everything

Artillery Row

On Christmas Day, Christians again turn to the Christ Child, adoring the One born of the Maiden of Nazareth, proclaiming — in carols and scriptures, in prayer and sacrament, in icons and art — that here, in this Child, is grace and truth, wisdom and peace, life and light, for all and everlastingly.  This Child, we believe, is the world’s salvation: our centre and our hope, our beginning and our end, our life and our peace. Or as Christians confess in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven”.

In a time of wars and rumours of wars, when the international order is creaking, when old and dark hatreds again cast their grim shadow over our societies, when our assumptions about the enduring stability of democracy and widening prosperity are profoundly shaken, it may seem — to say the least — somewhat strange for Christians to declare that this one Child, born in a far off time, is the world’s salvation.

The proud boasts of Augustus, the vain ambition of Cyrenius, they are as nothing here

Surely the world — no matter from what perspective on the Left-Right spectrum we diagnose its ills — needs something much more convincing and much more compelling than a Child (and, let us not forget, a Jewish Child — such a small, insignificant people), born in an ancient time far distant from the challenges faced by political institutions, the global economy, and complex societies in the early 21st century. Something much bigger is surely urgently required — a grand vision, an ambitious cultural project, a heroic ideal — capable of rising to the challenges we face, delivering us from injustices, turmoil, failures, and conflict, and remaking the world anew, whether that be prosperous and free or equal and just.

If the Christian hope in the Christ Child seems strange to secular minds, secular hope in ideologies, institutions, and causes appears entirely naive to the Christian heart. Over the long history of humanity, we have seen time and again, in every culture, in every era, how ideologies, institutions, and causes are, at their best, constrained by human ambition and failures, by the abiding sins of the particular era, by casual, supposedly self-evident assumptions that now horrify us. If that is not bad enough, at their worst, ideologies, institutions, and causes bring grim darkness, crushing injustice, and vast cruelties. It is extreme hubris for the contemporary secular mind to believe that it is somehow liberated from these constraints.

Despite all this, we might still be left with the notion that the birth of Christ, however pleasant some of its cultural connotations and consequences may be, is necessarily irrelevant to the complexities of life in the 21st century. Could something so unimpressive and rather ordinary as the birth of a Jewish Child, in a remote, unimportant province of the Roman Empire, two millennia ago, be the means of the world’s salvation? Surely something greater, more heroic, more compelling of our attention is required.

It was such views — held by sensible realist and enlightened cosmopolitan Roman opinion — that might have led the evangelist Saint Luke to have a mischievous smile when he penned the opening words of his account of the birth of Jesus: “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)”. This, Augustus and Cyrenius (and many others like them across the centuries since) claimed, was power and authority, ideology and ambition, hard and soft power to shape, define, and give meaning to history.

For Saint Luke, however, such claims are insubstantial and transitory, for the evangelist takes us to Bethlehem, and the Child laid in the Manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes by His Mother. No mischievous smile at this point. Now there is stillness and reverence. The proud boasts of Augustus, the vain ambition of Cyrenius, they are as nothing here. For here, in this Manger, is the One who shapes, defines, and gives meaning to history. Here is the world’s salvation.

“There is nothing, not anything, in heaven or earth left out … All are in now; all reconciled”

Not a grand vision, or an ambitious cultural project, or a heroic ideal, but the Child who is — in the wonderful words of a medieval carol — “heaven and earth in little space”. Not compelling our allegiance, not remaking this world with force; nor leaving us untouched and unmoved, resigned to our lot in the marketplace and a virtual existence, always incapable of satisfying the soul; for here is grace and truth, divine wisdom and divine love, calling forth our love as we receive grace upon grace in this Child.

When the gospel accounts of the birth of the Christ Child set before us the Blessed Virgin “great with child”, the wonder of the shepherds as they gazed on ”the babe lying in the manger”, and how the Magi when “they saw the young child with Mary his mother … fell down, and worshipped him”, they are calling us to know in heart, mind, and soul that truth and goodness, justice and righteousness, love and mercy are not abstractions. Reduced to abstractions, they quickly become distorted and emptied of meaning, angry slogans in culture wars and political crusades. Truth and goodness, justice and righteousness, love and mercy are incarnate here, in the Christ Child, bringing us to be still, not shout in anger; to receive mercy, not condemn others; to know the peace which endures, amidst our failures, disappointments, and uncertainties.

This Child is our salvation. Truth and goodness, justice and righteousness, love and mercy in flesh and blood, dwelling amongst us, drawing us now into the life that is everlasting, the communion with God that is the soul’s true home, desire, and joy. Or as a great theologian of the English Church in the early 17th century, Lancelot Andrewes, said of the Christ Child, “There is nothing, not anything, in heaven or earth left out … All are in now; all reconciled”.

As at this season we hear the carols of Christmas, reflect on the gospel accounts of the Nativity proclaimed in churches across the land, and look at images of the Christ Child, may we know in heart and soul the salvation brought by this Child, the salvation that is our hope, our joy, our peace.

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