Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017
If you have ever been to a service of benediction of the blessed sacrament, then you will have seen one of these. This is called a monstrance. Now this one is rather modest, but they can be quite large and they are usually gilt with precious metal and expensive stones. A monstrance is designed to catch your eye and grab your attention, but what is at its heart, the point to which your attention is drawn during the service is a little piece of bread, held inside this little chamber. Despite all of the gold and gilding, the part of the monstrance that is actually holy and worthy of our adoration is the very simple wafer, it doesn’t look like much (and most of you know that it doesn’t taste like much), but when blessed by our Lord, it becomes his body, his very life, given for us and given to us. We may surround the sacrament with all sorts of costly adornment, but that which has true value is really the simplest thing touched by God.
A Christian Church can be a monstrance of sorts. The holiest thing in this building is the bread and wine that is held in the tabernacle on the altar. It is the focal point of this building. It is what all the gilding and the architecture draws your eye too. It is to that bread and wine in the tabernacle that we genuflect. The chalice may be far more expensive than the altar wine, but in the end it is the wine that becomes holy. Bread is such a common and inexpensive thing that plenty of restaurants give it to you for free, and we think nothing of skipping it or leaving it untouched, but here it is given the highest dignity, here it is adored. Maybe that’s why the fancy tools are helpful: they do at least catch our attention, and make us notice something that we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. We may build great churches and decorate them lavishly, but at their heart the thing that makes them holy is something that God has done with something very common. The gold may catch our eye, but God lives in the bread.
Tonight, on the other side of the world people will gather in one of the greatest churches ever built. It isn’t great because of its size, which isn’t particularly large, nor is it great because of its beauty, which frankly isn’t that remarkable. No, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the oldest churches in the world, is great because of what lies in its heart. Situated underneath the high altar is an ancient cave. It doesn’t look much like a cave anymore, it has been decorated and embellished through the centuries, but here and there you get glimpses of the bare rock and you remember that once this was just a common cliff dwelling. What makes this cave so special, is not what men and women have done to it or built around it, the decorations are just there to grab our attention; what makes this cave holy is what God has done with it. God has taken something quite common, and done something amazing.
Now you may be wondering: “what is all this talk about a cave? Wasn’t Jesus born in a stable? Didn’t we just sing about ‘a lowly cattle shed’? What about the manger?”
Well if you travel in the middle east, one of the things you learn quickly is that there are a lot more rocks there than trees. There are caves everywhere and caves would have been commonly used to shelter livestock. Plenty of people lived in them as well, and why wouldn’t they? It only made sense. Our hymns and our nativity scenes aren’t wrong; they just don’t give us the full picture. But there in that common cave in the Bethlehem hillside, people have been gathering since there very first centuries after our saviour’s death to tell the story of his birth and what God did in that humble place. The Roman emperor Hadrian thought that he could put an end to the worship of Christ in that place. He had the cave covered over and even had a pagan temple built on top of it, in the hope that people would forget, but they didn’t. Years later, when Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine came to explore the sites associated with the life of our Lord, the local Christians led her to this temple. Hadrian wanted his temple to erase the memory of where Jesus was born, but ironically it just helped to mark the spot. The Christians hadn’t forgotten.
And then when the pagan temple was cleared away, there beneath it was the holy cave and off in one little corner, in the warmest part of the cave, a little trough cut into the stone for feeding the animals; a manger. This was the site; an unimpressive little cave, where God had performed his great miracle. Helena had a great church built over the site, decorated with rich mosaics, some of which you can still see today, but sadly most of her church would be lost to fire, only to be rebuilt by another Roman emperor, Justinian. Although Justinian’s church is still standing, it is the church we know today, what makes it holy is not it’s age or its decoration; what makes it holy is that small cave beneath it and the memory of what God did in that place.
On the floor of that cave is a silver star, to mark the place of Jesus’s birth. A whole war was fought once when someone stole that star, but it needn’t have been. How easy it is for us to forget that it isn’t the star that is actually holy; it’s the rock beneath it; just like this monstrance isn’t actually holy, only the bread within it. The decorations and the churches, they can be helpful in getting our attention, but ultimately they should always be pointing to what God has done and is doing in the world. God can take something so simple as a common cave or a little piece of bread, and he can fill it with his life. From the poorest shepherd to the greatest emperor, we are all saved and made holy by something that God has done.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent book on the life of Christ wrote:
“Because he was born in a cave, all who wish to see him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a babe on his mother’s lap, with the world poised on his fingers.”
If you want to see the Church of the Nativity, you will have to stoop…the main door is only 4 feet high; but it is the humble in spirit, those that can stoop in their souls, that will actually see Jesus.
I love Christmas, but at its heart it isn’t about what we do in the world; it is about what God has done. I love churches: the decorations, the vestments, the hymns, the incense, the candles, all of it, but not because they demonstrate what humans can accomplish. No, I love those things because they continually point my distracted mind back toward Jesus, and they remind me that no human in the grandest church or palace, will ever accomplish what he did in the tiniest cave; no artisan will ever craft from the finest gold, something more precious than he created from the simplest bread.