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God shares our life

An address by Fr John Slater

04 January 2004 11:00 | Fr John Slater

As the Christmas celebrations come to and end, I find myself reflecting on what it can mean for the thousands who celebrate the feast with little or no Christian belief. For many, of course, there is simply no substance behind the events Christians celebrate at this time of year. But I believe that for many people this may be the one time of the year when the reality of Christian faith is made possible. Singing carols reminds us that we live in a world made holy by this Child. Two and a half million people in this country will have attended church at Christmas this year and even if for many it is a rare event, the deep mystery we celebrate can assert its powerful attraction.

But the far more important question is, What does this feast mean for us? At different times of the year we focus our attention on different events in the life of the Lord - his baptism, his temptations, his passion and death and resurrection. And at each season of the year we ask, What does this mean? At Christmas we are forced to ask ourselves what the birth of this child means for us.

It’s truly remarkable that we have two quite detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus written only a generation after his time. I can’t think of another person in history two thousand years ago whose birth is described in such detail in documents written so close to the events. The two accounts, in Matthew and Luke, are very different but they don’t contradict each other. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his descent from David and Abraham. It’s an account of the birth of Jesus which emphasises his place in Jewish history and the purposes of God for his Chosen People. Joseph is a central figure in the story.

Luke’s account, on the other hand seems more concerned with the gentile world, with the Roman empire and the emperor’s decree that all the world should be enrolled. And here the focus is not on Joseph but rather on the Lord’s mother.

So even in the first century the story of the birth of Jesus was being told in different ways, with different emphases. And throughout history, theologians have studied the accounts in Matthew and Luke and made their own interpretations to relate the Lord’s birth to each century and culture. In the Middle Ages, St Francis introduced the Christmas Crib to be a visual portrayal of the nativity and a focus of devotion in a society where few could read.

So what does his birth mean to us in the twenty-first century? We have to go back to the third account of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament - the Prologue to St John’s Gospel. Here there are no details such as we find in Matthew and Luke, no stories of Mary and Joseph, no angels, no shepherds, no wise men. Instead we have the profound theological statement, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And that’s it. God, who is pure spirit, has entered our material world, the world of flesh, to live a human life and so to consecrate our world and our lives. God is no longer wholly different from us but we are united to him by the birth of this child, by the incarnation of the divine world. As he has shared our humanity, so we shall share his divine and eternal life.
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