by Mark Burkill

For many people the annual Carol Service from King’s College, Cambridge has an abiding association with Christmas. Long before I was a believer I can remember that Christmas Eve service being part of our celebrations. I particularly recall the lesson from John chapter 1 being introduced by a gravelly voice (presumably that of the Provost of King’s) announcing “St. John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation”.

Sadly for so many today the Incarnation remains a mystery. Its significance and glory remains hidden. It is customary for Christians to blame the commercialisation of Christmas for this. “Put the Christ back into Christmas!” must have been the thought that launched a thousand clergy magazine editorials.

Yet perhaps it is those very clergy who have done so much to obscure the significance of the Incarnation. The word ‘mystery’ is often used nowadays as a smokescreen to avoid dogmatic definition. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is said to be such an exalted mystery that we cannot affirm with any confidence either the truth of the gospel birth narratives or the orthodox teaching on the person of Christ which is found in our creeds. The mystery of the Incarnation becomes a means by which the confidence and certainty of the Christmas message is undermined. The trumpet of the gospel becomes a feeble squeak and is lost amongst the festive jingles.

It is high time that all of us as Christians noted that our Christmas texts are all about the unfolding of the mystery of the Incarnation. It is striking that the word ‘mystery’ in the New Testament is nearly always associated with the notion of understanding, revealing and telling. The mystery is no longer a secret. The mystery has been unveiled and is now a message to be broadcast to the world.

There is no mystery now as to what happened at Christmas. Matthew and Luke give us reliable accounts of the events surrounding Jesus’ nativity. They highlight the signs and circumstances accompanying Jesus’ birth. To them it is crystal clear that the child born in a manger is a King and a Saviour, that he is the long awaited Messiah. All is summed up by John 1:14 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”

There is no mystery either as to why Christmas happened. The apostle Paul states it with crystal clarity Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners “(1Tim. 1:15). The birth narratives in the gospels provide a vital foundation to assure us that the message of salvation through the death of Jesus Christ is a reliable one. Christmas shows us how our Saviour was fully equipped to rescue all who stand guilty before God.

The only real mystery about the Incarnation is why God bothered with it. The only part of Christmas which is impossible to grasp is the reason why Almighty God should have loved us in this way. So the proper manner in which we should celebrate the unwrapped Christmas mystery is surely this: Let us proclaim with confidence the mystery of our faith. Let us bow before the unfathomable mercy shown in the one who exchanged “sapphire paved courts for stable floor”.

Mark Burkill is Vicar of Christ Church, Leyton, in the diocese of Chelmsford.