|Nativity scene at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Toronto|
ARCAT Photo Collection
Tonight we recall the most beautiful story ever told - a story that is over 1900 years old, and yet that is as fresh and appealing as it was when it was first written by St. Matthew and St. Luke. It is a love story and it is a true story, because it is the story of God's love for man. To bring the story alive to us, a crib is put up in all our churches, made by human hands, in which we find the three persons who were the principal characters: Jesus, lying in a stable manger, Mary, His mother, looking upon her new-born Babe with ineffable love, and Joseph, standing nearby watching over the two precious treasures that God has entrusted to his care. The figures we see are little statuettes, lifeless, but reminds us of the real, living persons who played their parts in the first act of the divine drama, the outcome of which was to be our salvation.
Imagine for a moment that, as you look upon the scene in our miniature replica of the cave at Bethlehem, the three little figures suddenly come to life. What would they say to you, and what would you say to them?
Perhaps you would want an answer to a mystery which you may have wondered about. You would have expected that all Israel, or at least the people of Jerusalem and of Bethlehem would be thronging the cave to hail the Messiah Who had just been born. After all, this Child's birth had been foretold for centuries by the inspired writers of the Old Testament. The whole history of Israel had been one of promise, of warning, of appeal by God. Isaiah had written in prophecy: "A child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, and the government is upon His shoulders; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, God the mighty one, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace." One would have expected after all these prophecies, all this buildup, that the people would have come running to the cave to do Him homage. We would have expected that the whole world would know about His birth, that He would be acclaimed by all nations as the Saviour of the world. That would have been a fitting climax to those centuries of preparation. But this! A weak child born in obscurity, born in a stable, with no one to look after Him except His virgin mother and His foster-father. That was the most disappointing anti-climax to any event that ever occurred in the world.
Yet the kingdom that this divine Infant came to establish on earth was not one of worldly pomp and power, but a kingdom of love and of peace, in which poverty and humility would shine out in all their beauty and loveliness. The world at that time did not understand that, and, as St. John reminds us, when He came unto His own, His own did not receive Him. Does he mean any more to us now than He did to the world of His own time?
The centuries-old custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas is a beautiful one. The first one to give a Christmas gift was God the Father, who so loved the world that He gave His only Son to all men on the first Christmas. As soon as Jesus was born He began to give His gifts of love, self-sacrifice and suffering, first to Mary and Joseph, then to the shepherds who, in their turn, gave what poor gifts they had to offer.
Tonight the divine Infant wants to give each of us gifts that will bring us happiness and contentment, the gift of peace, the gift of love, the gift of a better understanding of His gift of His life that we might have life, of His gift of the sacraments, especially of the sacrament which brings us God's forgiveness and peace of conscience, and of the sacrament of the Eucharist in which He takes up His dwelling within us, uniting us in the most intimate way to Him. He pleads with us, on this His birthday, opening His tiny arms in a most appealing way, that we welcome Him into our hearts. If we can do that, then we will have a happy and holy Christmas, and as He Himself would wish, a Christmas merry in God.
Bishop Francis V. Allen, Christmas 1971