THIS WILL BE A SIGN FOR YOU
(A biblical refection on CHRISTMAS MASS – Sunday, 25 December 2016)
Gospel Reading: Luke 2:1-14
First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalms: Psalm 96:1-3,11-13; Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14
The Scripture Text
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!” (Luke 2:1-14 RSV)
In the countryside close to Bethlehem, on the first Christmas night, St. Luke tells us, there were shepherds watching over their flocks, when an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them. At first fearful and bewildered, the shepherds were reassured by the angel. “Be not afraid”, he said to them, “this will be a sign for you; you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
“This will be a sign for you.” In the Old Testament there were many such signs which were regarded as visible evidence of the presence and purpose of God. For example, in the greatest of these, when Moses received the Tables of the Law from God on Mount Sinai, we find the traditional signs of that time denoting the presence of God, peals of thunder, lightning, flashes of fire, the ground shaking. The reaction of the people was one of fear and awe, and they said to Moses, “Do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.” Yet, while Moses was speaking to God on their behalf on the mountain, their faith grew weak, to the extent that they fell into idolatry and worshipped a golden calf.
Four hundred years later, on the same mountain, we have another sign, a further self-revelation by God, this time to be another sign, a further self-revelation by God, this time to the great prophet Elijah, who stood in a cave while the Lord passed by. Then, we are told, there came a mighty wind, followed by an earthquake and by fire, but God was not in any of these; He was no longer associated with the forces of nature. But after the fire there came the “whisper of a gentle breeze”, or taking the Hebrew literally, “a still small voice”, and when Elijah heard this he covered his face, because he felt himself in the presence of God, and no one, it was believed, could gaze upon the face of the Almighty God and live. Elijah regarded God as a Spirit who was beyond human comprehension. Yet again, while all this was taking place, the people of Israel were in a state of revolt against God, and lapsed into idolatry.
Let us in the light of these two signs try and understand the sign granted to the shepherds of Bethlehem, that of the baby in the manger. For it is here, we can say with certainty, that we have the greatest self-communication of all time by God to the human race. There is nothing of the fire or lightning of Mount Sinai, but the glory of the Lord. There is no dreadful rumbling of earthquake or thunder, but a heavenly host praising God and proclaiming peace to the world. And although there is the still small voice which somehow recalls that which was heard by the prophet Elijah, it is rather the first earthly sound made by a new-born child. But in complete contrast to the other two signs, this new sign of the baby in the manger, is not one to instill terror into the hearts of those privileged to gaze upon Him.
Later on in His public life, Christ in a reference to the Cross was to say, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32). And in the humility of His birth, in the gathering of some lowly shepherds drawn to His manger, He was from His first moments on earth already preaching the lesson of self-abondonment that He would preached in so complete a way during His last moments on Calvary. What one among us is not touched by the helplessness of a new born babe. The infant lying in the manger, on the threshold of life, is a sign to melt the heart, to draw all people, as would the crucified on the Cross with the last agonizing breath of His life.
But the tragedy is that this sign, like the other two, would be met largely with unconcern, misunderstanding and disbelief. Christ would be rejected by the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees, Scribes, Priests, and the majority of its people, because He did not correspond to their expectations of what the Messiah should be. We should do travel down that road, nor turn our backs on the actions of the Holy Spirit by trying to hold on to our own concepts of God.
Prayer: O Holy Spirit, open our minds and let our hearts be melted by the consideration of God assuming a tiny, fail human form, and being laid in a manger. May our faith in Christ then reborn this Christmas day, because only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of those things which at present remain hidden from our view. Amen.
Jakarta, 24 December 2016
A Christian Pilgrim