It is midnight in Bethlehem.
Tonight’s Gospel evokes Bethlehem’s hillsides. The angel of the Lord proclaimed to shepherds that their Saviour had been born.
“This will be the sign. Ye will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Isaiah proclaims in about 730 BC: “The ox knows its owner; and the donkey knows the manger (phatne) of its lord; but Israel has not known me.” (Isaiah 1: 3).
In the natural world things are self-evident, animals know their masters, in the human world, things are not so simple. Israel will not recognise God; while this should be natural, it is not.
In this Bethlehem shepherds’ narrative, the old vision of not-knowing is being reversed.
The manger is a word play in Isaiah. It is mentioned three times by Luke. Our attention is drawn to it. An old Hebrew word for manger is almost the same as Jerusalem.
I think the angels are saying:
“You shepherds unlike your predecessors can know Him, and it is in Jerusalem he will be found.”
So, having established that the angels want us to have our minds directed to Jerusalem, what about the swaddling clothes?
In Jerusalem, at its very heart, the putting on of the linen garments of the High Priest was of key significance. Indeed, the High Priest was swathed in linen. In the Temple there was a huge veil, an embroidered work of art. Behind that was another veil, made of linen. Only the priests could go behind the second veil, and to do so they had to be swathed in linen. In the earliest days of Solomon’s Temple, the Messianic King was set apart as a priest to perform those sacred rites as well.
We know from the psalms, that as kings were anointed in Israel, they were divinely begotten, in Jerusalem.
In the alleluia verse which heralded this evening’s Gospel, we have just heard the verse from the second Psalm, which speaks of the birth in the Temple of the Messiah. Along with the other nine so called “Royal Psalms” we can almost reconstruct the means by which a Davidic king, a Messiah, was reborn and would exercise their quasi-priestly functions in the Temple.
The elevation of the Messiah was a mystical consecration in the heart of the Temple. The identity of the one to be anointed was exchanged; their humanity was replaced. They were re-born; they became a representation of the divinity, which had both royal and priestly attributes.
In the first lesson, Isaiah’s promise of the birth of a son, who would be a wonderful counsellor, Divine Hero (the better translation from the Hebrew of “The mighty God”), Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, refers directly to the ritual of begetting of a new Messiah. Isaiah is seeing not the birth of a child, but the anointing in the Temple in robes of linen of a new King, an everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.
In going to the manger, the shepherds were reversing the age-old misapprehension. Previously Israel had not known its Lord.
Now, the shepherds hasten to the manger/Jerusalem, where they find the one swathed in the linen of the High Priest, Saviour and King. But the words have played tricks on us. It IS a manger, and they are swaddling clothes. Utter holiness is not where it should be, but in a cave in Bethlehem.
On the sixth of May 2023, Charles, our Most Excellent King and Governor, will come to the collegiate church of St Peter of Westminster, Westminster Abbey. He will enter its precincts in red, the robes of a martyr, he will take the coronation oath, and he will be divested of all magnificence, and screened from view, the Archbishop will pour oil onto his head, breast and hands, just as we do in any baptism. By actions which date back to the time of David and Solomon, King Charles will be anointed, and reborn. Following his crowning, the outward sign of the inner new reality, he will be lifted to a higher throne to receive the fealty of his subjects.
The King, in a rite which on these shores dates back to 973, will be re-begotten.
As his mother before him did for over 70 years, he will reign over us, as one set apart. Our age sets little store by sacraments and holiness, but this is the great treasure of the English inheritance. There is no constitution. There is only a coronation which acts as the once in a generational moment when all the institutions of Church and State are consecrated, seen in their true light.
It is as fragile as the one who wears the crown. It is at once human and divine.
As we celebrate the birth of the one and only true Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we pray that God may bless and consecrate our earthly sovereign as richly as he did the late Queen. And may the world be caught up in that rare moment of particular consecration.
The opening of John’s Gospel speaks of the word made flesh.
Forgive me if you heard me say this last year and the year before that and the year before that, but it bears re-telling every year:
When we take bread and wine at the Eucharist, the priest prays over the chalice as water is added:
By the mystery of this water and wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
He exchanges his nature for ours, that we might exchange our nature for his.
At the very heart of the rites of the King’s anointing is embedded the same mystery. It is a consecration for us all, and points to the destiny of humanity.
Everyone’s favourite hymn writer Mrs Alexander grasped all of this in the last words of Once in Royal:
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by.
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.