I wonder if you’ve noticed how the stories of Christmas in the Bible are gift wrapped in light? On an obvious level, we light candles everywhere and put coloured lights on our tree. Christmas cards show pictures of stars and cribs in soft-focus.
But if you think about it, the Christmas story itself is itself bathed in light. The wise men follow a star. The shepherds see the heavenly host as the sky erupts with light in a field to one side of tiny Bethlehem. What’s going on?
At the very beginning of the Bible, the ancient Book of Genesis starts this way: 'In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness [...] And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ The light that God formed when kick-starting creation can’t have been the sun, moon, or stars because God made them during his fourth instalment of creation. No one could have made that mistake at the time of Jesus, for everyone knew that when the Bible says, ‘Let there be light’ it was referring to God finding a way to demonstrate his own glory. The light is the glory of God, and every time the glory of God appears in the Bible, God makes it visible as manifested by light. Indeed, light in the Bible is always a visual metaphor for the glory of God.
Seen that way, we see the Glory of God everywhere in the Bible. When Moses first encounters God in the desert, he sees a bush that burns without being consumed. It’s not a flame but a visual manifestation of God and his glory. When Moses leads the Israelites across the desert from slavery to freedom, they follow a pillar of light — they are literally following the glory of God. When Jesus shows his divinity in the event we call the Transfiguration, he shines with light as bright as a car headlamp. That he radiates the Glory of God in this way means that he is God.
So we shouldn’t be surprised therefore (when we look through this lens) that we see the glory of God in all the stories that surround the birth of Jesus. The Wise men follow a light in the sky, a star. Both the shepherds and the Wise Men only recognise Jesus from a light hanging overhead. The story of the shepherds in the fields seeing a light in the sky is quite explicit. Listen to this: “An angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The next bit is even more explicit: “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven!” And in the original language in which the Bible was written, the angels actually say, ‘The Glory of God that is of the highest heaven!’
The reason for wrapping the story of Christmas with glory is obvious. It’s this: the reason for God coming to earth is because God wants us to share his Glory. He wants us to move on from being the people we currently are — sinful and unaware of his loving purposes — to become Christ-like.
But how? Human beings have a problem. All of us are made to follow God, and yet we don’t. We need God but don’t even know where to look. We can’t follow him because we don’t know how to reach him, how to understand him, how to listen to him. We don’t even know what a person living a God-filled life looks like.
How do we know the God we need? It’s an age-old problem: as it says in this evening’s second reading, ‘Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets’. In other words, God’s first attempt involved speaking through human intermediaries — the prophets. It clearly didn’t work, so God changed tack. To continue from our second Bible reading 2, ‘In these last days [and these words were written at the same time as Jesus] God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the worlds. [wait for it] 3He is the reflection of God’s glory’. In other words, the central idea behind Christmas is that God was born into human history as a human being — baby Jesus. As I read from John’s Gospel a moment ago, ‘The word became flesh’, which is simply Bible-code for saying, ‘God who is a Spirit and therefore invisible decided to became a human being’. Or, to put it yet another way, when we see Jesus we see God.
Jesus’ task was making God known. He did so by first ensuring our total forgiveness through the Cross. Removing our sins breaks the barrier between us and God, and we then access Him. In a sense, it’s the spiritual equivalent of being plugged directly into the mains. Indeed, in proportion to our accepting the forgiveness which comes from God, which incidentally means forgiving others, we are enabled to live the spiritual life that is everyone’s birth-right. That spiritual life is the life we were born to live. We can have a life lived in the beauty of a relationship with God. And as we live in God, so God lives in us, and the Glory of God rubs off. We receive his Glory into our lives. And we live. I’m reminded of a saying from one of the earliest of the Christian Saints, Saint Irenaeus: ‘The glory of a God is a person fully alive.’
I wonder if you’ve noticed how the stories of Christmas in the Bible are gift wrapped in light? That light is intended to point toward the glory of God. That glory came to earth as a human baby, born in a manger in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. That same glory can be born in you and in me. The reason why we celebrate Christmas is not because of the past in Bethlehem but also what can happen here today. We can become Christ-like and share the glory of God, becoming fully alive.