Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.
It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence. With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?
Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.
The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?