Archive for December 30th, 2019

First Sunday of Christmas 2019

Monday, December 30th, 2019

I haven’t counted the exact number of Christmas cards that I’ve received this year, but there are an awful lot of them. Some of them were from some of you- so thank you very much!

I’ve noticed several trends amongst the Christmas cards I’ve received in recent years. Firstly, the rise in personalised ones- photographs on the front bearing pictures of people’s children or dogs (Not guilty- the picture of my dog was on the back this year!), secondly an increase of cards with a religious theme (well it’s what Christmas is really about isn’t it?) and thirdly a drop off in pictures of Dickensian Christmases- with snowy London streets and carol singers gathered beneath a gas lamp outside bow windowed shops.

I’m not surprised by any of these developments. It’s so easy to print your own cards now, a religious card is the obvious choice to send the Rector and the Dickensian Christmas is a bit of a myth. Not once in 56 years have I walked through the snow to church on Christmas Day, and the more familiar group of carollers (singing Frosty the Snowman in the underground station… and in November) is a world away from the romantic imagery of the Dickensian card. Christmas is not like that today – if indeed it ever truly was.

But the religious Christmas card… now that gets us back to the heart and truth of what the birth of Jesus was like doesn’t it? Well, does it? Setting aside the fact that in Christmas cards Mary never looks exhausted after giving birth or shocked to find herself surrounded by shepherds, the nativity stories themselves are riddled with ambiguities: How many wise men? Stable, cave, shed? Not even the essential character of the donkey is attested to in the Biblical account) so much has been pieced together in the popular imagination across the millennia since it happened, that for all they help us picture the scene of Christ’s birth they can’t help but mythologise and romanticise it. And whilst I’m not averse to a little romanticism (though sadly when it comes to romance I’m more familiar with the theory than the practice!) It’s not helpful when it actually obscures or detracts from the awesome event of the incarnation Christmas celebrates.

For our carol service this year I chose a poem by Malcolm Guite[1] called Refugee which I want to reflect a little on now:

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

As the sentimentalised images on our Christmas cards begin to curl as they hang above the central heating radiators, on this Sunday when many of us will sing our last carol, and on the day after the feast of the Holy Innocents when the church remembers Herod’s frightful massacre, this poem feels particularly appropriate.

It can also feel poignant when after one day of indulgence and bon-homie, the world seems to return so quickly to its dangerous normality, with a plane crash, 85 killed in a terrorist bomb in Mogadishu, three members of one family drowning on holiday, a rabbi stabbed in New York…. the list could go on.

The truth behind the glittering Christmas cards is that the world into which God chose to be born was then, as now, fraught with danger and menace. Indeed we cannot understand the light that shines at Christmas if we remove the dark backdrop from the world against which it shines and into which it breaks. It was into a scarred and wounded world that Christ was born, it is to a scarred and wounded that he will continue to be relevant, and it is in a scarred and wounded world that he will continue to be found. That’s the message of the God born in the chaos of a stable, rather than the comfort of a palace. A child at the mercy of adults, a child like those slain by Herod and countless thousands who today find themselves ‘fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel’. The story of the flight into Egypt seems utterly contemporary: and if God emptied himself and became as human as we Christians believe then we must acknowledge the experience of the Christ child as being the same as that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by their mothers in desperation out of war zones. The Christmas card may show the holy family plodding steadily across open sand dunes towards the pyramids, but the reality is a child who is regarded as an enemy of the state being smuggled out of the country.

And Matthew, the gospel that gives us the story of the slaughter of the innocents under Herod, also records two vital sayings of Jesus. They come towards the end of his Gospel: firstly that “whatever you did to the least of these who are my brothers and sisters you did also to me” and “I am with you always to the end of time”. With the first we can make an obvious connection to the story of the slaughter of the innocents: what Herod did to them he was indeed trying to do to Jesus. And whilst Jesus may have escaped Herod’s sword, he was scarred by the slaughter of the innocents and so we see his life being one of championing the innocent, the vulnerable, those abused or downtrodden by the power of the state or of religion: you could say that he gave his life to their cause. And it is not fanciful to make the connection that when Jesus said to his disciples that he would be with them to the end of time, that we should see in the face of every child refugee, child factory worker or abused child the face of Jesus himself. They are who Jesus was. They are Christ today.

But far from being hopeless this means that we can still meet him and help him in his need. And- as the poem reminds us- for what we do, or don’t do, like Herod we will be judged by the lamb upon the throne: the God who became man, the shepherd who became the paschal lamb, the judge who has been the victim.

The astonishing, shattering, beauty of the scene that adorns so many Christmas cards and which stands beneath our altar, is not just that God was born among us to share our life, our humanity; but to do so from the dirt of the stable floor through to the rough wood of the cross. Unafraid and most present where life was hardest, unfair, painful and dark. It is into the utter darkness that the light of Christ breaks- that’s what we celebrate at Christmas a truth that is not cosy or romantic but challenging and bloody and real. It’s what makes it Gospel- good news- that people have been willing to die to proclaim rather than a fairy story for children at bed-time.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font.

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up an on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the lamb upon the throne.

 

Christ is with us, may we be where he is this Christmas and in the year to come.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Guite,M. Waiting on the Word. (Canterbury Press, Norwich; 2015) p115


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