25 Dec 2018

Infatuated! Drunk! Mad!

I’m not describing some embarrassing aunt at a Christmas barbecue or some creepy guy at an office party. No, this is how St. Catherine of Siena – fourteenth century mystic and the first lay woman Doctor of the Church – described God. According to Catherine we are God’s little darlings and He is the Divine Madman, ebro d’amore, pazzo d’amore – infatuated, intoxicated, insane with love for us.[1]

Only a divine madman, she thought, would make creatures such as human beings with god-like intellects and affections – but also with the freedom to ignore Him, abandon Him, even make themselves His rivals.

Only a god that was infatuated with His creatures would keep calling them back to Himself even after they had made such fateful choices.

Only such a being would do something as nuts as Christmas: the infinite, all-powerful, impassible God becoming a limited, helpless, vulnerable baby in a backwater town at ‘the arse-end of the world’ – as Prime Minister Keating’s famously described Australia, but the ancient Romans thought of Judaea.

If you’ve ever been in love, you know how vulnerable it makes you. It means letting someone else into your innermost self. If they enter there with indifference, exploitation or cruelty, you are left broken-hearted. But if they come with gentleness, reverence and compassion, your heart is filled with joy, expanded, healed. By becoming that most vulnerable of creatures – a newborn babe – God opens up His heart to all humanity at Christmas, and lets us in to do our best – or our damnedest.

And so begins today the greatest love-story ever told. We know where this divine madness leads: to teaching, healing and discipleship, to an intimacy between God and humanity never known before in history, but also to the cross, to a cruelty known all too often before and since. All our readings today talk of sacrifice and salvation (Isa 52:7-10; Ps 97(98); Heb 1:1-6); even John’s love-poem says some would not accept the Christmas Lord, that Darkness would seek to snuff out the Light (Jn 1:1-18), that some would resist God’s efforts to set us free.

To set us free… We can be free from or free for. Free from restraints, attacks, demands; free for opportunities, choices, the good. A family bread-winner might be technically free to quit their job and concentrate on surfing; a party-animal may be physically free to drink and drive; but what is their freedom for, what is the responsible thing is to do?

Our Christmas Saviour restores us to both kinds of freedom. Jesus comes to set us free from sin and sickness, addictions and vices, whatever entraps the human spirit. Christians ever since, at their best, have been champions of human rights, advocates of freedom for all. We want no-one in indefinite detention, trafficked, coerced or abused, oppressed by poverty or ignorance. We join Christ in seeking to free people from whatever endangers or impoverishes the human spirit.

But Jesus comes not just to free us from such things but also for something. Jesus frees us not so we will pursue our selfish desires or the fashions of the day, but so we can be more and better, for “light and grace and truth” as the Gospel puts it. And so Christians, at their best, seek not only to liberate others but to enable them to do great things, noble things, loving things.

One freedom endangered at the moment is freedom of conscience and belief. Around the world devastatingly high numbers of people are dead, damaged or displaced for their faith every year because some people want to homogenise human beings, control them, and use power, even violence, to do so.[2]

No-one dies for their faith here in Australia, thank God, but we are not immune to threats to religious liberty. A year ago there were promises of new measures to ensure that freedom is protected in this country; a year later and all we’ve had are more promises… Meanwhile, discrimination against people of faith has become more acceptable in some quarters. There have been moves to undermine the Sacrament of Confession, to defund Catholic schools, to charge an Archbishop with discrimination for teaching about marriage, to deny faith-based institutions the right to choose what kind of community they will be. Today, as we join the angels in our carols, both glorifying God and pacifying people, some are demanding we choose between the two. Some want us to put the Christ-child away with the Christmas decorations, so He has no claim on the year ahead.

What does the God who is mad enough to do Christmas say to all this? Well, when He made us, God could have made robots or puppets who would always do the godly thing. But our dignity was best served by freeing us to make our own decisions, to do good – or evil; to know, love and serve Him – or not. This was a great gamble, and at Christmas He threw the dice again, this time handing Himself over to us as a vulnerable baby, child, young man, whom we might reverence – or kill. He enabled and encouraged us to use our god-like freedom for the good, all the while knowing we might do otherwise.

Every Christmas we are presented afresh with the vulnerability of love and of our own humanity. But Christ came to ransom us for true freedom. We are free to respond as Herod did, and try to kill the Baby, the idea, the imagined rival. We can use power to control, persecute, discriminate. Or we can, like those startled shepherds, come in awe and adoration to the crib, declaring as we do that mad loving is the better way. No more violence! No more oppression! No more prejudice! To the God whose infatuation with us brought us into being , and whose intoxication with us made Him one of us, we say freely on our knees at the crib: we are mad enough to love you back, O Divine Madman, and to love all humanity for your sake!

[1] St Catherine of Siena, Letters II, 46; Dialogue chs 153 and  157.

[2] See Aid to the Church in Need, Religious Freedom in the World Report 2018.