Christmas: presents: such a challenge and an opportunity! It’s a time of high expectations not least for those awaiting the sounds of reindeers on the roof and those striving so hard to find the gift that truly expresses the love they want to show.
The exchange of Christmas gifts can be so rewarding: the joy on a child's face on opening the present that is just right! The quiet satisfaction on finding that elusive present – and at a bargain price, as well!!
This language of exchange figures strongly in the language of the Church at this time. In summing up all the wonder of Christmas, the Church sings these words:
'O marvellous exchange! Our Creator has become a man, born of a virgin and we have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ, of he who humbled himself to share in our humanity.' (Octave of Christmas)
Now marvellous exchange is the very heart of our festival; and it is the origin of all our gift-giving. Writing in the second century, St Ireneus said: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.'
This evening we proclaim that God is born in time so that we can be reborn in eternity; that the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, so that we become children of the one same Father in heaven; that God is with us in order that we might be with him; that He who came down in order to be with us is at work now to draw us up to himself (St Augustine).
What does this mean to us this evening? That we hold in our heart this truth: when we come to kneel at the crib we not only gaze on the wonder of the Word made flesh but also on the wonder of the promise of our own eternal glory, the invitation to share in God’s life, now and for all eternity. This promise is the only one that can ever truly satisfy us. Here, in Jesus, the promise is given in such humility and simplicity that now it lies within our grasp.
On Christmas Day in 440, Pope St Leo the Great said to those, like us, contemplating the birth of Christ: 'O Christian, know your true dignity!' He was reminding them that through this marvellous exchange in which Jesus brings us to share in his divinity, we see our true and lasting dignity which no-one can take from us. This marvellous exchange is the surest and deepest truth of our Christian faith. This is the joy which fills the Cathedral with such beauty and music this evening.
But there is another aspect of this marvellous exchange to consider. What are we to do in response to this initiative of such a loving God? What have we to give, in order to play our part in this marvellous exchange? We have just heard one fine answer:
'What shall I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I could give a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. What I have I give him, give my heart.'
Mary has shown us the way. Her part in this marvellous exchange is both clear and essential. She gave her flesh, her whole self, to the Eternal Word so that he could come as one among us. Her gift, poor and simple, is the essential surrender of herself to God’s purposes, made out of love. What is more she has made this gift on behalf of us all, on behalf of the whole human race. Through her we are all involved in this marvellous exchange. We now have our part to play.
When we say or sing that 'I give him my heart' we are doing the same as Mary. We, in our turn, are making a gift of our flesh, of our whole selves, so that the Eternal Word of God may continue, through us, His saving, healing presence in our world. We are opening every action we make, every love we give, every plan we formulate, to be a vehicle of God’s creative, merciful presence.
This is the best Christmas gift we can make: to offer to God the inside track of our lives, so that we may be directed by God in all we do and say. This is the best gift we can give not simply for ourselves, but for all whom our lives touch. When we become more clearly bearers of the divine, then all whom we touch are blessed through us - whether at home, at work, in our parties and in our grief.
When this happens then the Word continues to become flesh in us. Only when Christ is formed in us will the Christmas mystery truly be fulfilled (CCC 526).
It is my great pleasure to encourage you, with these few words, to enter deeply into our continuing preparation for the coming Feast of Christmas and to hope and pray that this wonderful knowledge of the love and desire of God for each one of us may enter deeply into our souls, filling us with such joy that this truly is a very happy Christmas indeed!
Archbishop of Westminster