"Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." (Hebrews 1:1)
About twenty years ago, a relationship counsellor called Gary Chapman wrote a book exploring what he called the ‘five languages of love’. The idea, which is often used in marriage preparation as well as in family and relationship counselling, is quite simple: he argued that there are basically five different ways in which we each express and experience love. For each one of us, each one of these languages is more or less important, and relationships work best – he argued – when we understand both how we need to express love ourselves, and how we need others to express it to us. The languages he identified were gift giving, spending quality time together, words of affirmation – actually telling someone that you love them, acts of service – having someone do thoughtful, practical things for you, and physical touch. At Christmas time, we highlight some of those love languages in our families and friendship networks, and try to make up some of the deficit of the previous year. We send a card to the person we know we haven’t been very good at keeping in touch with; we make sure to spend some time with a relative we haven’t seen for a while. For other people, perhaps for some of us here tonight, the season highlights the absence of a loved one, or heightens a sense of isolation and loneliness, and I hope we’ll all be particularly mindful of those for whom that might be the case this year.
Tonight we celebrate, with profound wonder and joy, the way in which God tells us he loves us. Where in earlier times he had spoken by the prophets, by his messengers who dreamed out loud about how the world should and could be different, in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. As God becomes a human child, filling heaven and earth with glory, lying in his manger, the Eternal Word speaks to us. And speaks to us in ways which both show his glory, and tell us compelling truth.
The Eternal Word who was in the beginning with God, who was God, and without whom nothing else was made, leaps from heaven to become a tiny child, a newborn baby with no cradle but an animal’s feeding trough in a borrowed outbuilding. He is utterly dependant, vulnerable, helpless; he is utterly beautiful, with tiny hands which reach out to grab an adult finger, tiny feet which can’t kick free of the swaddling bands, and perfectly formed baby fingernails.
Mary gave birth to that child and laid him in that manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. The accommodation was temporary and wholly inadequate shelter for a new mother and her baby. When God became human, he did so among the most vulnerable, among those with the least security. Figures published by the Public Accounts Committee this week point to a drastic rise in the level of homelessness in our nation: it has more than doubled since 2010, and is increasing sharply, including in this part of the country. Nationwide, about 9,000 people are sleeping rough, and nearly 80,000 families are living in temporary accommodation. God’s incarnate language of human love learns his mother tongue among the weak and marginalised, among those whose mental health difficulties mean they struggle to articulate their helplessness and despair or to make sense of their fear. Like the angels in the carol we sing shortly, heaven’s love-song to creation often goes simply unheard and disregarded.
But there is more to say about that stable, borrowed and wholly inadequate for the part it came to play in God’s salvation story. Faced with large-scale problems like the scale of homelessness, or intractable conflicts such as the situation in the Holy Land, it is easy – natural – for all of us to feel helpless, inadequate to the call to bear the light and love of Christ to his world. The stable was not a suitable maternity ward; Mary, fearful and hesitant, asked the angel “How can this be?” And God’s glory shines through anyway. Our expressions of love might be hesitant and uncertain, but they may yet be heard by someone as glorious angel song. Fluency in a language comes through practice, through speaking it badly as we struggle to get our meaning across, and sometimes being misunderstood!
When God spoke to us by his Son, by his Word appearing now in flesh amongst us, he spoke in a land and through a people living under military occupation. He spoke through a family that would be displaced, forced to become refugees in a foreign country. He whispers to us where ‘man at war with man’ out-shout the angels’ love-song of peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind. The first reading from Isaiah [Isa 52:7-10] reminded us that the land we call holy has always been contested land; the political events of recent weeks have thrown this again into sharp relief. In poignant, prophetic protest, the lights were switched off on the Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. The promise God speaks to us tonight, however, is that there is light no darkness can overcome, and that all the ends of the earth – all humankind and each one of us – will one day see and know for ourselves the salvation – the healing and wholeness – Christ brings. This is the grace and truth that shines in glory from that inadequate, borrowed manger. In the silence of this midnight, we are invited to hush the noise of conflict, of anxiety, busyness, distraction, and to hear God call our name through child’s cry and angel-song.
God speaks to us in precious gift; he changes the quality of both time and eternity by becoming human; he tells us over and again through his prophets and by his Son that he loves us; he comes not to be served but to serve, offers us a pattern for our living and our loving; he becomes part of the physical world he created, touching us with his tiny hands and tiny feet, meeting us now in earthly things, living today in bread and wine. He invites us to learn his love language as our mother tongue. The Eternal Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, speaks to us this Christmas night and through eternity, both in glorious angel love-song and in the first, wordless cry of a tiny newborn child.