31 December 1st Sunday of Christmas
Readings: Is. 61. 10 – 62. 3; Gal. 4. 4-7; Lk. 2. 15-21
Theme: Contemplating the Nativity Scene
There are many different ways of praying. Each person should seek out the way that God has imprinted on their souls so that we may enter into that intimate conversation with God which is prayer. And, like so many conversations, there are many different parts to it. Our Gospel for today presents us with a way of praying which is through contemplating the nativity scene. We are called through this Gospel to contemplate the mystery of the birth of our Lord in the manger housed in a stable. There are several characters for us to contemplate in our praying with this Gospel scene. We begin with the angels. They make an early exit and go back to heaven. Angels are the messengers of God who communicate with us in order to reveal God’s thoughts for us. Their departure announces the entrance of the shepherds into the scene. Those young people charged with looking after the sheep who have been told by the angels that the messiah, the Christ, has been born in the town of David, in Bethlehem. What must it have been like for those shepherds to hear the message of the angel telling them that the messiah had been born. One can only imagine their excitement, perhaps even bewilderment that they had been spoken to by an angel.
But bewildered or not, they hurry off to Bethlehem and find Mary and Joseph and Jesus lying in the manger as the angel had told them. What joy they must have experienced to see the messiah wrapped up in the manger. How must it have seemed to them that the story of the liberation of Israel, the salvation of God’s people was at hand. Just take a moment to try and see through the eyes of those shepherds at what they must have seen that day. How special they must have felt to behold the sight that so many of their fellow countrymen and women had waited to see.
Of course, also in the seen are the proud parents, Joseph and Mary. What must they have felt? How challenging it must have been for them to bring this child into the world under such conditions. Joseph, as often in the Gospel is named but is otherwise not featured. But he is there. Sitting silently in the scene contemplating all that had gone on and what this child would mean for his family and for the people of Israel. St Luke gives some brief but highly significant words to Mary. We are told that, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart”. This is Mary’s contemplation of the scene. She tastes the sweetness of what the shepherds had told her of the angel’s message and she ponders them in her heart. Do you ponder the message of the scriptures in your heart? Do you allow the words of the Holy Scriptures to speak to you personally? The Christmas season is a time to ask ourselves these questions, so that we are aware of our habits in this respect.
The central character, of course, in the nativity scene is Jesus. It is amazing to think that in this small child God dwells in a unique way as the Son of God. To enter into human history in this manner tells us that our God is a God who submits himself to the laws and order of nature in order to assume them in a new way into the new creation which his birth will inaugurate.
One of the key aspects of our conversation with God in prayer, is whether we allow God to speak to us. In order for that to happen, we need to learn to be silent. And, silence is not simply the absence of words, though that is a helpful preparation, it is also an interior silence. This is an inner silence that St Luke communicates to us about Mary, by telling us that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart”. This pondering of Mary is the allowing of God to speak to us in the depths of our hearts, when we are shrouded, as it were, in silence. This is why we have so little recorded of Mary in the scriptures. She is the woman who listens and contemplates the words and actions of her son Jesus. Through this, she enters into a deep intimacy with God which makes her most blessed amongst women.
So, we should take Mary as a type, a model of what Christian prayer is all about. Christian prayer is a treasuring of the mysteries of the Lord and a pondering of them in our hearts. It is when these mysteries are pondered deeply in our hearts that they begin to take root and to blossom into an inner savouring of the things of God. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”, as a psalmist says. Such an interior tasting allows us to enter ever more deeply into the mysteries of our faith, so that we too like Mary can burst forth with joy and the praise of God, as she does in her most beautiful Magnificat.
So, you may think of setting some time aside during this Christmas season to contemplate the nativity scene presented to us in our Gospel today.
Many centuries ago St Francis of Assisi is believed to have set up the first crib in a cave in Greccio, North East of Rome, in Italy. He did this to help foster devotion to the birth of the child Jesus, by providing people with a visual representation of the early nativity scene. We are fortunate in our church at Sotogrande, to have a beautiful crib in our church, and it is worth just spending a moment contemplating the various figures in the scene and imagining what it must have been like at that holy time in Bethlehem to see what God was doing.
Praying at this time of Christmas is a good opportunity to reconnect with the mysteries annunciated in the Holy Scriptures. As we set our hearts in silence, we, like Mary, can learn to treasure the mysteries of God and ponder them in our hearts. Such a conversation with God allows us to hear again the message of the angel given to those first shepherds at that Christmas time, “Today in the town of David a Saviour had been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.