Christmas Midnight Mass, 2019

Dear friends, it may seem a slightly unusual gift, but for my fiftieth birthday I was given a Christmas Crib. This might not be the obvious present for somebody with a birthday in July, but for me it was perfect.

From a young age I’ve been fascinated by Christmas nativity scenes. My first crib was a set of small plastic figures bought with pocket money from a Woolworth’s store. I made a stable out of cardboard and glued porridge oats to the floor and to the roof. To my eyes it made it look more realistic.

Since then I’ve collected cribs from different parts of the globe. Each one represents the same eternal truth: that God sent His Son to earth, born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, to be cared for by His foster father, St Joseph. The infant Jesus, loved by shepherds and adored by kings, is the Savour given to us who is Christ the Lord.

My birthday crib is modelled on those traditionally found in Provence. Like those from Naples, the nativity scene is set within a whole village. The little figurines, called ‘santons,’ go about their daily business, some totally oblivious to the birth of Christ in their midst.

Along with the Holy Family, and the shepherds, there are two camels and an elephant, the transport required by the wise men travelling from the East. There’s also a woman selling garlic, a man with some chickens, another woman carrying firewood, and two of my favourites: a man with a music box and a woman holding a tambourine. The whole of life is there in miniature, ready to sing and dance because God has come to earth so that we might go to heaven.

There are two especially intriguing figures in my Provençal crib: a man and woman who stand, plainly dressed, with their arms held out in the air. This character is known as the ‘ravi,’ a simple ordinary person, like me and you, but one caught up in to the drama of Christmas.

The ravi has no sheep, gold, frankincense, or myrrh to bring to the Christ child. The ravi doesn’t even have chickens or garlic, a music box or a tambourine. Instead, the ravi offers the most important gift of all, the gift of wonder that God’s love is so expansive so as to include everyone.

The ravi is a witness to joy at the birth of the Lord Jesus. He or she knows that something unique is taking place on this holy night, that there is something here so special and wonderful. We too gaze with an open heart, desiring that the love and forgiveness God offers in Christ might touch and shape us and our world.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve met the figure of the ravi. These are the people who see the world with eyes of wonder. When there’s so much than can depress and frighten us, so much that causes us to worry and steals our hope, the ravi remind us there is more to life than what we can see and touch.

When we look up to the heavens and see all the stars, understanding ourselves to be part of God’s magnificent creation, then the ravi is awakened within us. When we marvel at the precious gift of human life, of every person in all their grandeur and vulnerability, then the ravi stirs in our being. When we refuse to be crushed by our struggles; when we keep going against all the odds; when we continue to believe that God is with us in everything we face, then we are ravi, holding up our arms in faith, in hope-filled wonder, in prayer and praise.

The awesome reverence of the ravi for God and the things of God provides an antidote to the selfishness that can overtake us if we are left to our own devices. The Gospel message, which the baby Jesus grew up to proclaim, calls us to change for the better. Christ did not stay in the crib, although we might sometimes like to keep Him there. He fulfilled His mission by preaching and teaching, through healing and forgiveness. By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Christ guarantees that death is not the end. We are not made for nothing. Life is not futile. All things will, in fact, be well because divine love is more powerful than human failure.

Some of us may find it difficult to muster a sense of wonder this Christmas. We might be facing illness or bereavement, or situations we don’t want and can’t seem to change. We might be trying to cope with mistakes that we or others have made and which affect our lives or the lives of those we love. But wonder is not just a sense of amazement at something beautiful. To wonder is also to desire to know something, to want to make sense of what’s happening, to think it through, and, even, to ponder it in prayer.

The American singer and songwriter John Jacob Niles composed words in 1934 that are now sung as a popular Christmas carol. They read:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor ordinary people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

Tonight we are invited to wonder once more at the gift of the Lord Jesus to the world. Whether we are filled with grateful praise, with heartfelt petitions, with a longing for change, or a yearning for understanding, we can each pause before the new-born Christ child and, in faith, receive with hope the peace He brings. To you and those you love, a very happy and peaceful Christmas.