New Year - Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 1st January 2024
Christmas Crib 2023
I have been dipping in to Cocksworth and Ford’s ‘Glorification and the Life of Faith’1 and was struck by what they say about the smile as a sign of glory – both the smiles we share amongst ourselves and the smile of God. They say that the Hebrew word translated ‘shine’ can also be translated as ‘smile’ and so we could read all those passages about God’s face shining upon us as God’s face smiling on us. Indeed we have this connection in English too when we talk of a ‘beaming face’2.
In the Old Testament this smiling was metaphorical as God’s face could never be seen. Even Moses could only see God’s back, although his face shone (and maybe we should say smiled?) when he had been with God – revealing God’s glory in his own face.
But now in the incarnation God’s smile is revealed in the smile of Jesus and we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
It is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 4:6]
As a human baby Jesus would have learnt to smile from his mother and father and the others around him. In this time between Christmas and the celebration of the Circumcision of Jesus I have been pondering that first week of Jesus’ life. Mary and Joseph would have been getting to know their baby, no doubt talking to him and smiling on him. Even very tiny babies within hours of birth respond to smiles and facial expressions, imitating what they see. Babies are born to interact and it is their care-givers who shape that interaction. A smile calls forth a smile, and we know that as adults too. Jesus learnt from Mary and Joseph how to smile and so brought God’s smiling face into human form.
I imagine the smile of Jesus not as one of those huge, teeth-baring smiles that you see in celebrity photos – which seem to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I wonderful?’. Rather I imagine a gentle softening of the face, an openness and welcome to the other, not imposing but making space for the other person to be how they are. It could even be a sad smile with tears in the eyes acknowledging the grief of another. When we can smile at another person in this way we bring something of Christ’s presence into the relationship.
A smile signifies joy and the season of Christmas is a particular season of joy as we celebrate God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ. But this is a joy that is not simple happiness but a deep joy that can encompass the worst that life throws at us. I have found it very striking to have the crib situated under the hanging cross this year. The shadow of the cross hangs over the birth of this child, as we hear in the Biblical stories of Jesus’ birth. When Jesus is presented in the Temple Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul. The gifts brought by the wise men speak of deity and kingship but also of death.
The past year has brought challenges for us as community that we could never have anticipated. Throughout the world too we see conflict and destruction and can feel powerless to do anything. We have no idea what the coming year will bring either personally or on a global scale. It would be trite to say ‘just keep smiling’ but there is a wisdom in seeking to open our faces to whatever comes, to let there be a welcome in our eyes. When we are tense and unhappy our mood can be shifted simply by allowing our face to relax into a gentle smile. Scientists have found physiological changes happen that make us feel happier when we do this.
Of course that is much easier said than done and there are times when smiling seems impossible. At these times we need a gentle and welcoming smile from another to acknowledge our pain and to offer the hope of God’s blessing when we cannot see it for ourselves.
The New Year is traditionally a time for making resolutions, so I offer the cultivation of an ‘inner smile’ as a habit for this new year. Allow the smile of Jesus to shine in your heart, flood your whole body and soften your face into a smile. That smile can then be a gift of God’s blessing that we offer to others.
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face smile on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.
Mother Anne - 1st January 2024
1Glorification and the Life of Faith by Ashley Cocksworth and David F. Ford, Baker Academic 2023
2Ibid, p 120