A few hours to kill at home before I go down to St. George’s to make sure the heating has come on at its appointed time for Midnight Mass. Some thoughts waft into my mind from a long distant RE class, probably from the latter years of my (fairly unhappy) Primary School education, I would think from Mr. McGinnity in P6 or P7. I would have been about 10 years old. Somehow it seems of particular relevance tonight.
The shepherds, we were told, were not an obvious choice to be among the first people to see God made man. The shepherds let a tough life, isolated in their highland pastures, far from synagogues, often unable to keep holy days and rarely able, given the marginal nature of their existence, to be ritually pure. I am not sure how true that is. I know nothing of the sociology of Palestine in the era of Christ.
But the story has a consonance with the totality of the Gospels. It is often the outcast who is given the gift of seeing Christ face to face. While the shepherds may or may not have been considered good Jews, the Wise Kings of the East could scarcely have been monotheists of any sort. Mary and Joseph, fresh from their hasty shotgun wedding, were scarcely better representatives of orthodox religious respectability.
The beginning of Christ’s life on Earth prefigures its culmination, when the thief and the foreign soldier recognise the divine that the holy men choose to destroy, and the women, so often dismissed as unreliable, are called to be the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
O come let us adore Him. It is this vulnerable infant we are called to adore, a hick from the sticks born in a barn a long way from home, his family soon to be on the run from a minor Roman satrap so crazed and terrified for his position that mass infanticide seemed a reasonable option. It is a fitting beginning for an itinerant preacher from a backwoods town destined for an early and excruciating death.
God incarnates himself not in power but in vulnerability, not as the son of an Emperor destined to rule but the bastard son of a carpenter from the middle of nowhere. Again, the beginning of Christ’s life prefigures its culmination. Just as God rejected power in His entry into this world, so He rejects it again as He departs it, dismissing the potential for revolution on Palm Sunday and instead choosing the path towards the Cross.
And yet the Churches seem so obsessed with power, the Church of Ireland of my adoption as much as the Irish Catholicism of my baptism. The fear of a secularised society among the hierarchs of both institutions is tangible, a nostalgia for the certainties of a Christendom that collapsed in the space of a generation clouding impartial judgement of the transparent flaws of Irish Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, in its mid-20th Century pomp. I do not miss the directives from the pulpits, the chained swings, the homes for fallen women, the visceral sexism, homophobia, and snobbishness, and the unashamed tribalism seen most clearly in the casualness with which worship of flags and nationality was allowed to displace worship of almighty God.
As CF Alexander wrote on the morning of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, “in the time of plenty, little fruit we bore Thee.” Why do we pine for it so much? Do we really think an Ireland with gay marriage is a less Christian country than an Ireland of Magdalene laundries, institutionalised child abuse or the Penal Laws? Do we really wonder why people reject our claims?
We are not called to worship the Church on Christmas Eve, but the Christ-child in his manger. The Church is not a set of people bound by common rules determined by men in purple clothes, but the community of those who fall before the manger and adore the King of the Universe, who loves us so much that he became one of us and died to save us.
I have never been so estranged from the institutional Church and yet I have never been so convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. Perhaps that is not a bad position from which to go to meet the Christ-child tonight.