Fr Conor McDonough
“What?! You shouldn’t have!” “Mum, look what Santa brought!” Christmas is a time of surprises, usually pleasant, and that’s very fitting, because it’s a feast that commemorates the greatest surprise in history, although we often forget the great surprise amid all the little ones…
How often have you passed by cribs these last few weeks? Perhaps you’ve stopped to look at one, to admire the familiar scene. And perhaps the scene is too familiar. We see it without understanding it, we recognise it without appreciating it, we think it’s cute but we’re not surprised by it.
There’s a beautiful modern Christmas song that touches on this. It’s called ‘Mary, Did you Know?’, and the most popular version online is by the vocal group, Pentatonix.
The song addresses Mary, and references Jesus’ birth: “Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?/Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?/Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?/And when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.”
We can leave aside the question of what exactly Our Lady knew of her son’s nature and destiny, but what do we know about this child? If the readings we heard on Christmas morning is true, then we know that he is God, the Word through whom all things were created, the one who “sustains all things by his mighty word”.
What an extraordinary claim this is! The child who rests in the manger, the child who sleeps in heavenly peace, is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Creator and sustainer of every star and planet, every mountain and tree and squirrel and fox and molecule and atom!
“Mary did you know that your baby boy is the Lord of all creation?/Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?/Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?/This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.”
This knowledge changes everything, and makes the familiar story utterly surprising. What we see in the crib is a man and his wife and a child, a domestic scene. But we know that what is going on is not just domestic, but cosmic: the Creator of the entire universe is here in flesh and blood.
And this knowledge isn’t just cosmic, it’s also deeply personal: we see an event that took place long ago and far away, but we know that this event is for our salvation, we know that the child is born to us, we know the He is present to us today.
When we know the reality that is represented in the crib, we can’t help being changed by the encounter, every time. The knowledge of who Jesus is, and who he is for us, is never just a set of cold facts that can stay stored away in our heads.
Far from it: it’s a knowledge like wine that flows through our veins, warming our hearts and bringing us to our knees before this almighty, tiny child in sheer surprise and joy.
I recently heard a bit of Christmas folklore from the northwest that explains how the robin became the robin redbreast.
The idea is that, before the birth of Christ, the robin had a white breast, but one brave and curious little robin in Bethlehem hopped into the stable where Jesus was born, and hopped up onto the manger to see what was inside. The child Jesus reached out his little fingers to stroke the robin, and in that instant the robin knew who was reaching out to him: it was the Lord of all creation reaching out to a little creature, it was the one who is higher than all the angels descending to the level of a little bird, it was the infinite God who had become small just so that he could be close to his creatures.
And the robin, knowing all this, blushed at the honour given to him, and ever since he has been carrying around the mark of his dignity, a little sign of God’s great love.