A week or so ago I took part in a wedding at which a young man kindly read a short passage from one of St. Paul`s letters. St. Paul was talking about the nature of marriage and the mutual concern a couple should have for one another. As part of this letter Paul says very simply, “Wives, respect your husbands”.
It was probably something to do with the excitement of the day but these few words brought the house down at least among the men. Now, it`s not often that you hear a good belly laugh at the end of a Bible reading in church and so I couldn`t let the moment pass. I mean, gave me the perfect opportunity to reflect with the people about the power of illusions. Clearly no matter what St. Paul might have said, their experience of marriage was evidently somewhat different. And I`m reminded this evening of one of my favourite Christmas pop songs; favourite, except for the fact that it contains these words: “They sold me a dream of Christmas. They sold me a silent night. They told me a fairy story until believed in the Israelite”.
I often think that one of the sad things about this time of year is the way in which some people seem to feel that in order to enter into Christmas one has to somehow suspend our hold on reality. There appear to be among us those who feel that Christmas is effectively a delusion and a fantasy. No matter what the Bible might say our experience is somewhat different.
Oh, we don`t mind the `games` we have created to make these few days go with a swing but underlying that debate which happens each year about what we call `the true meaning of Christmas`- whether we conclude that it`s about the children; a time for the family; goodwill towards those whom we ignore for the rest of the year – or less positively a capitalist conspiracy there is always a certain amount of wishful thinking and `well this is a bit divorced from reality` isn`t it? And this all seems terribly ironic to me given that St. John describes Christ coming among us as `The Word became flesh`. It seems strange given that Jesus is given the nickname `Emmanuel`- God choosing to become part of what it means to be human. In other words Christmas is nothing if it`s not about being utterly in touch with reality; life as we experience it.
So how can we get a handle on this? Well let me invite you to think of Christmas by using three words. A Window, a Sign and an Announcement.
Firstly, I want to suggest that the Bible accounts of Christmas offer us a window on something very big. Again, in his Gospel St. John says `In the beginning was the Word` and so on. And he`s deliberately pointing us to the Book of Genesis and saying `in Jesus a new creation has begun`. The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a new world order where a people walking in darkness see a great light; they are returned from exile; and as Mary put it, the mighty are cast from their thrones`.
In short the Christmas story gives us a window on power and how it is used in the world. The witness of Mary, the `servant of the Lord` challenges that fantasy of control that we are encouraged to believe we should have over our own lives and destiny; and when St. Matthew tells us of the blind panic of Herod and his cronies because a new king has been born we`re to be encouraged by the knowledge that tyranny will always live on borrowed time. Because Jesus is Lord it doesn`t have to be this way and the powers that be know it…….
Whilst we pray fervently for those who hold power in this world, no matter how cynical we might feel about alleged corruption in politics or the sad absurdity of bankers declaring themselves `masters of the universe` all of these things are placed in their true perspective by the birth of Jesus the King. Only yesterday another politician was foolish enough to say that the Church should keep out of politics. Oh dear……. But then perhaps we should, whenever we`re tempted to play the world at its own game. And maybe that`s been our problem for generations. Maybe it`s the church that first needs to hear the Christmas story and take to heart the deep humility of Christ`s birth.
For me, this is something of what Pope Francis is doing by talking of being a church for the poor. And it`s interesting to see how the Church of England is wrestling with no longer being at the top table and claiming a right to be heard. I get the sense that we are learning, at long last not to shore up our position with privilege and the trappings of power; defensive and fearful but instead spending ourselves in service of the world.
So Christmas is a Window onto the world and the provisional nature of power. But secondly Christmas is a sign. `This will be a sign for you` said the angels to those baffled Shepherds. `You`ll find a Baby down there in Bethlehem` they were told. But of course, the significance is not the arrival of a baby as such but the coming of a Saviour. Christmas is not celebrated for its own sake; and this is possibly the biggest mistake we make. Christmas is a sign pointing to Easter.
Every so often I enjoy the laddish humour and silliness of Jeremy Clarkson and his pals on Television. But he has an irritating way of referring to “Baby Jeezus” which somehow labours this point. You see Christmas that is about an infant leads to an infantile faith. A faith which cannot acknowledge the very real rebellion in the hearts of us all which we call sin; the attempt to live as if God is not God and the forgiveness, the new beginning which the Cross and resurrection `signify`. In other words, the birth of Jesus points to the ministry of proclaiming, healing, delivering, teaching, suffering, dying and rising on the third day. It`s a remembrance of that moment when God`s long awaited promise to re-create his world got going. That moment, as St. Paul says: “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared” (Titus 3)
And we reveal how misguided we are every time we imply or say that someone can have their Christmas gifts, “if they`ve been good”. You see, the gifts of Christmas are symbols of the grace which the cross is about. `It was while we were yet sinners that Christ dies for us` says St. John. Or to put it another way, `We are Christians not because WE are good but because God is good`.
And that leads us to the other point. If Christmas is a window onto God`s world and Christmas is a sign pointing to the cross; Christmas is also an Announcement. It was clearly was a busy time for the angels but notice their job is simply to deliver a message. They said to the shepherds: `To you in David`s town this day is born a Saviour`.
Now there`s something objective and `given` about this. It`s not about what they have or haven’t done… It`s not even about what they have to do; God`s not in the self-help business… it`s about what God has done and is doing. All they would see was a baby. And we`re told- `everyone was amazed by the story`; and we can understand why but the announcement is unambiguous. And this I think is the other mistake we make. So often our Christian understanding of what we call evangelism is little more than a poorly executed recruitment drive for our rather eccentric way of behaving. But the clarity and directness of the angels` message reminds us that the Gospel, the Good News, is far from being: `come and join our club`…. On the contrary it`s an announcement; the proclamation of what God has done and is doing. It is a widow onto God`s action in the world.
And to this end it`s not under our control it`s something which are caught up in. It`s a truth, a reality we are called to live, serve and bear witness to. All you see is a baby…… what you get is a new world order, a Saviour and the invitation to say `yes` to all that God is doing and wishes to do for his world. `Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in`.
St. Mary`s Windermere. Christmas Eve 2013