Posted: Friday 4th January 2019
Christmas day 2018
Christmas Day Sermon 2018- Rev’d Simon Buckley
After our carol service on Thursday evening I popped into the Parish Office to find Jake, our new and very diligent administrator correcting a couple of typos he’d spotted in the service sheet we’d just been using. “I thought I may as well make these corrections now, so I don’t repeat them next year he said”….. Next year’s Christmas bonus is already assured!
Yes, there should have been an apostrophe in David’s City and yes, being British, I do like a ‘u’ in Saviour. “And I presume” he said, pointing to third line of Silent Night “that should be young virgin mother and child, not ‘yon’?”. “well, no, I said ‘yon’ is right, short for ‘yonder’- ‘over there’”. “Yon?” he looked at me slightly disbelievingly “I can’t believe that’s an actual word”. Thank goodness we didn’t have ‘Here we come a wassailing’ in the service!
After a school assembly a couple of weeks ago, when I’d been talking about journeys- Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, the journey of the Magi and the flight into Egypt- an 8 year old girl came up to me afterwards to ask “why is only Jesus’ birthday called a nativity?” to which I said with absolute confidence “ah, that’s a really good question”! Explaining the etymological route from Latin was rather more of challenge at 9.30 on a Wednesday morning than I was ready for. But at Christmas – and especially in church- words and phrases we don’t use in any other context or at any other time of year trip off the tongue without a second thought.
My favourite Christmas word this year is …. Swaddling! Swaddling. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. The angel said to the shepherds ‘this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. Apart from its use twice in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, where else, other than in an episode of Countdown when a contestant has a really rubbish hand of vowels and consonants before them, would you ever be likely to hear the word ‘swaddling’? Newer translations of the scripture swap ‘swaddling clothes’ for ‘bands of cloth’ to give us a clearer picture that swaddling clothes are not just a first century baby-grow, a ‘Jesus onesie’ , but strips of cloth which would be used to wrap the baby up. Like bandages they have a protective quality. Swaddlingly carries with it a sense of closeness and comfort, of something applied lovingly and tenderly to keep it safe; here is a precious child- the most precious of all gifts wrapped with more care than any Christmas present ever since.
Martin Luther was drawn to the image of Christ in swaddling bands too and, in his introduction to the Old Testament, he drew a parallel and described the whole Bible as being like the swaddling clothes that Mary wrapped Jesus in: Simple and little are the swaddling-clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies therein.
John Donne, the 16th Century poet and Dean of St Paul’s, suggested that every turn of a page of the Bible should be like turning back the cloth that wraps our Saviour: our sole purpose is to reveal the radiance of the living Christ.
Donne went on to say that if we use the pages of scripture for any purpose other than to show Christ and his love then they have no authority nor contain treasure, but are instead worthless rags. Swaddling bands hold something precious, full of life and, in the case of Christ, someone life -giving.
I wonder what you have wrapped up as a gift for someone this Christmas and how carefully you’ve wrapped it? Was the wrapping a hasty or furious tussle with sticky tape and shiny paper… The late-night production line of gifts to be wrapped as sparingly as possible to prevent running out of paper? The bodged up covering of an odd shaped item that the addition of a ribbon and bow didn’t disguise? Of course, not everyone is adept at wrapping presents, there is a knack and an art to it (that I seem to have lost this year!) but the effort we put in often reflects something about the value of the gift itself and the value we place on the person the gift is going to. I have a hunch (which, admittedly, has not been scientifically tested) that even those who are least skilled at wrapping presents, or most pressed for time, try a little harder with the more carefully chosen gift for their loved one than they do with the box of liquor chocolates from Poundland they’ve wrapped for the work’s Secret Santa.
But swaddling makes me think of something else too: not just of careful wrapping, because the gift of Christ is precious, but also of cradling. Safely wrapped up Jesus could be held by Mary, Joseph and those who came to the manger as the angel had instructed them. Emmanuel means God with us, and the infant Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes becomes the Christ who can indeed be held and embraced: the God who is content to be placed into the hands of humankind.
Gift giving is a risky business. Get it right and you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Get it wrong –give a wholly inappropriate or thoughtless gift and expose how little you understand its intended recipient and the repercussions can be immense. But whatever you give, if you give it with strings attached in an attempt, however subtly, to control the person to which it’s given it won’t be a gift, but a bribe wrapped in jolly paper with a bow on.
The gift of Christ, loving wrapped is placed into our hands without condition. No response is demanded, it is pure gift. It is a gift of God’s self-giving given freely, given out of love and swaddled for each one of us that we might, in this small child, know God’s love for us. Whatever is carefully swaddled or wrapped and placed in your hands this Christmas I hope that you will receive it as a gift – a token of the love, affection or gratitude of the gift giver -and through the unwrapping, grow closer to the one who has given that gift to you.
Happy Christmas everyone!