Wednesday 22 December 2021

Timing it right

We’re nearly at the end of 2021. It’s not the greatest year many of us have experienced, though perhaps not as bad as 2020. But even this year, like all years, is supposed to be a reminder to us of something more important. An event so important that all our years are counted from it. In three days’ time we will celebrate the 2021st anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Yes, we are probably out by a few years because someone didn’t add up properly somewhere along the line. And yes, even now, we can’t be 100% certain how far we’re out by. So just think how difficult it must have been to keep track of time in the ancient world.

Before people counted years since Christ’s birth, they had a number of other important events they used as reference points. And that pops up on Christmas Eve. There’s a book called the Martyrology that lists the feasts days and saints days that occur for every day of the year. And just before Midnight Mass begins, part of our celebration of Christmas will involve solemnly singing the entry for the 25th of December, which says:

When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in his own likeness; when century upon century had passed since the Almighty placed his bow in the clouds after the Deluge, as a sign of covenant and peace; in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the exodus from Egypt; in around the thousandth year since David was anointed King; in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel; in the one hundred and ninety fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty two since the foundation of the City of Rome; in the forty second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, being eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, conceived by the Holy Spirit, after nine months had passed since his conception, in Bethlehem of Judah was born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

The Word was made flesh, God became a man, Jesus Christ was born at a specific moment in human history. This is not mythology that happened once upon a time. This happened at a particular time and in a particular place: in Bethlehem, 2021(-ish) years ago.

Why then? God could choose any time in the history of the world for his Son to be born. Why did he choose that one? The answer must be that there was something right about it. And this entry from the Martyrology seems to back that up.

In the forty second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace…

So it seems that this was the right time. The world was at peace. Everything was ready. The world was prepared to receive the Son of God.

Except that we know that’s not quite true. St John’s Gospel tells us: He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not (1:10–11).

And this peace wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. The Roman Peace was incredibly violent. There were constant uprisings and rebellions across the empire. It was a peace that forced on people all across Europe a culture that depended on slavery, abortion and infanticide. It was a peace founded on military might, and maintained through the constant threat of violent execution. And it’s in the middle of this world that Christ chose to be born.

I’m not sure I would want to be born into a world like that. Why did God think that was a good time for his Son to enter our world? We can be certain he didn’t make a mistake. This was the opportune moment. The world may not have been perfect. But it was ready.

So many people think that they’re not ready for Christ because they are not yet perfect. None of us is. But we can still be ready. If we wait until we are perfect to receive Christ, then we’ll all be waiting a very long time. If God had waited for the world to be perfect before entering it, he would still be waiting. The Son of God entered our world as a human being because, even at its best, our world is still broken. Even when the whole world is seemingly at peace, it’s obvious that the world — and all the human beings in it — need a Saviour.

That entry from the martyrology looks forward. When it’s sung, the final line uses the same notes that are used to sing the Passion on Good Friday. Christ’s salvation is won for us on the Cross. But even while he is a newborn baby lying in the manger, he is still solving so many of our problems. Because whatever else may still be wrong in the world, he is now in it, here alongside us.

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