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God lays aside his Glory

The Sunday after Christmas

28 December 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I was last in Bethlehem in November 1999. It was a very exciting time to be there. I had visited many times but by 1999 a great deal of foreign aid had enabled the city to be restored - new shops, a splendidly repaved Manger Square, new streets and gardens. And above all there were new hotels preparing for the millions of visitors expected to visit Bethlehem in the millennium year 2000. All those great hopes were smashed when Ariel Sharon took a walk on the Temple Mount and sparked the beginning of the Arab Intifada which continues three years later with little sign of resolution.

Bethlehem today, I’m told, has been all but destroyed by Israeli tanks. Could we have any more powerful symbol of the world’s desperate need for God than the war which devastates the Holy Land?

But pilgrims to Bethlehem will find still standing the great basilica built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. It is a truly magnificent church built with all the financial resources and all the architectural genius of the late Roman Empire. But it is not this wonder of the world that pilgrims come to see. Instead, they queue patiently to descend the steps beneath the sanctuary where they find themselves in a dark cave illuminated only by the candles around the star in the floor which marks the place of the birth of Jesus.

I find the contrast between Justinian’s magnificent basilica and the simple cave beneath it very powerful. For at the heart of the Christmas story is the God of divine glory laying aside all divine power to take upon him instead our simple and mortal humanity. In the Letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes,
Have this mind among yourselves which you
have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in
the form of God, did not count equality with
God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant, being born in the
likeness of men.

The Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus bring out this sharp contrast between the glory of the heavenly Son of God and the poverty of the human life he came to live. It’s as if Jesus comes to us from the Father trailing the glory of heaven which is glimpsed by those who witness his birth. Angels appear in Nazareth and fill the night sky over the shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem. What a contrast with the long and arduous journey from Nazareth - on foot, with Mary perhaps on a donkey. Even little Nazareth is caught up in the international politics of an emperor in distant Rome who wants all his subjects to be enrolled in a census.

And what would the shepherds see when they went to see this thing which has come to pass? A tiny cave at the back of an inn where a mother held her new-born son, where Joseph held up a lantern and the farm animals gathered to the warmth. No hint of divine glory here unless the angels the shepherds had seen in the fields came to add a touch of that glory to the Saviour’s birth. Of course a hint of glory does intrude into this bare cave - I mean the wise men from the East. They brought gifts fit for a king. Just imagine, amid the simplicity and the poverty of the stable, there on the rough floor are laid gold and frankincense and myrrh.

This is the mystery we celebrate - God’s own laying aside of divine glory to dwell among us, to live as one of us, to take our poverty, our human mortality, and to give us in exchange a share in his own eternal life.
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