“The cross hangs over the crib”
Sunday 29 December 2019
As we gather on this morning after celebrating the Birth of Our Lord, the readings set by the Church are full of contrasts. In the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet makes the case for praise being due to God. He reminds his readers of the gracious deeds of God and of the fact that it is God’s very presence that saves. Isaiah writes: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.”
The appropriateness of this reading in the season of Christmas seems fairly self-evident.
Likewise, in Psalm 148, we have our heads and hearts lifted in praise of the God whose very creation witnesses to his goodness. As the Psalm concludes: “Therefore he is the praise of all his servants: of the children of Israel, a people that is near him. Praise the Lord.” Once again, it is the sort of Psalm and sentiment that we could expect in a time of joyous celebration of the birth of our Lord.
But the mood of the readings changes when we get to the readings from Hebrews and Matthew’s Gospel. The serenity of Bethlehem is short-lived.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us starkly that this baby born in Bethlehem is destined to suffer and die. In a sense, he seems to be saying that Christ’s suffering interprets his birth. What I mean by that is that it is the fact that Jesus died as he did for us that his birth takes on the added significance of God becoming human. Without the human element, it is not possible for God to suffer for us.
In other words, as St Paul puts in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” And a little further on in the same Letter, Paul writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
So the writer of Hebrews seems to be saying that the baby in the crib is not where our gaze should linger, but rather on the mission that the baby will engage in as the presence of God amongst his people.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we also move away from the birth moment quickly to the opposition that arises and which will be a constant throughout the life of the child to manhood. Immediately, we are told of Herod’s rage that he may have a rival.
As Charles Cousar says: “The opposition does not sit idly by and take the news of his arrival casually.” From the moment of his birth, Jesus attracts opposition and this opposition will continue throughout his life and eventually lead to his brutal murder on the cross.
Cousar goes on to say: “The birth of Jesus, when not encased in sentimentality and romance, represents a powerful challenge.”
And it seems that this challenge is what the Church holds before us when it asks us to consider these reading on the First Sunday after Christmas. By all means celebrate the joy of the coming of Jesus amongst us through his birth at Bethlehem, but don’t then forget the purpose for which he was born. The cross hangs over the crib and makes itself present from the very beginning in the violent opposition that greets him – even as a baby.
It certainly doesn’t mean that we need to become morbid in what is essentially a season of joy, but it does mean that we can never wallow in the sentiment of Christmas as if we don’t know that this child will challenge each and every one of us each day of our lives to personal commitment to him. We need to have the insight of the holy man Simeon who held the baby in his arms and told his mother, Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
We celebrate the season of Christmas with joy, but we keep an eye on the cross that is never absent from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and we recommit ourselves, not to a baby, but to a man who calls us to follow him wherever his path may lead – even to death on a cross.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen