Whilst at a peace rally in Trafalgar Square just before Christmas one year, Cardinal Basil Hume was confronted by a journalist attempting to gain newsworthy comments from the protesters. To Hume’s surprise, one journalist asked him, ‘What does Christmas mean to you?’ Cardinal Hume’s response was as follows:
‘I was rather taken aback because it didn’t seem to me to be immediately relevant to the purpose of the rally. I had to react at once and said the first thing that came into my head. It was this: “The great and awesome God became man for me.” He said “thank you” and didn’t pursue the subject. It was only after I had gone fifteen yards or so that it dawned on me what I had said. Here was a familiar truth which I had known all my life. But at that moment the simple truth that God had become man seemed to me quite staggering, and I realised I was looking at a familiar truth in a new way…
…St John says “God is love”, not that he loves but that he is entirely love. That is why I have come to treasure each Christmas. I have come to realise more intensely that the birth of Jesus Christ in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered. If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the child in the manger.’
The Mystery of the Incarnation (1999), pp.9-10, Darton, Longman and Todd.
The wise men followed a star to find their way to the location of the Christ-child laying in the manger, but it was their belief that something momentous had occurred that led them to set out on their journey in the first instance. Having studied their own astrological projections and compared them with Jewish prophecy, they must have slowly realised that here was an event of great importance. When they actually arrived at Bethlehem and found what they had been looking for, their expectations had to be reconfigured – they were faced with a child, born in humble circumstances, helpless and poor.
All the wisdom their culture could offer, and all the learning of their particular disciplines had brought them to a deeply held belief that a kingly figure of some kind would be appearing at Bethlehem; but now, confronted with a weak infant in lowly surroundings, it was the gift of faith that led them to fall down and worship Jesus (c.f.; Matthew 2:11). This is the core of what we celebrate at Epiphany – the realisation that God has become man, for us. The wise men, following the wisdom and insight afforded to them, could only surmise so much; it was the gift of faith that led them to see the true significance of the Nativity. Cardinal Hume considers the application of this aspect of the story here:
‘If you follow the star of Bethlehem you will find just a child in the manger, or so it might seem, but it is faith which enables us to know that this child is truly God as well as truly man; not that we can see it clearly. Faith is a lesser light, but enough, and it is a light given by God, a special gift, his most important gift to us.
So as we travel through life we have the star to guide us, and we look for God and the will of God in everyday things, in persons and events and in many things. We might just have seen the child in the manger and missed the point – that he is also God. Equally, we can go through life meeting people, loving people, and also miss the point. We can only see with our physical eyes, so we have to let that little light which is faith lead us to God who is, in some wonderful manner, within all things. If we look for him every day in our present situation in this life then we will most certainly find him. All the time our eyes are being trained to see him in the full glare of vision. That is our ultimate expectation.’
As the Christmas season comes to a close, I think it is important to dwell a little longer on the enormity of what it means, to consider whether we have really taken the central message of Christmas and Epiphany to heart – that God became man for us. As Cardinal Hume says in the earlier passage: ‘If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the child in the manger.’ The birth of Christ is the revelation, the epiphany, that God loves us so much that He has entered into every aspect of our experience, with all its contradictions, frustrations, sufferings, joys and jubilations.
What this means for us, apart from the comfort of knowing that when all is said and done, when all the tears are dried, God is love and is for us and with us, is that every human life is therefore consecrated and validated in the eyes of God. As Cardinal Hume says, although we cannot share the experience of the Magi and witness the Nativity directly, we still have the same gift of faith to light our path, and this light tells us (sometimes contrary to experience, and this is when it is most valuable) that we can see God in all things, and all people; that ‘if we look for him every day in our present situation in this life then we will most certainly find him’. This means looking for Him in the most unlikely circumstances and the most unlikely people. If we do, we will be in for a surprise just as wonderful as that experienced by the Magi, if not more – they saw the light of Christ that one night in Bethlehem; we, with the light of faith, can see Him in our neighbour every day.