This reflection will be shared at the Christmas Eve service
but you might want to find some other time to sit down, take a breath,
read through and reflect on what the Christmas story means to you.
Whenever that might be, may you have a blessed Christmas.
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25
Well, we’re nearly there. One more sleep til Christmas Day…or no more sleeps for those of us who’ll be up beyond midnight, whether in restful contemplation or with furious wrapping!
Either way, our advent calendars – be they pictorial, cheese or chocolate, are now fully opened and many of you will, like me, have thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed our online advent calendar this year. If you haven’t been following it, I recommend going to our YouTube page at some point because, alongside the Christmas story and some thought-provoking questions, you’ll find members and friends of our churches sharing some of their favourite presents and the stories behind them. From kitchenware to family heirlooms; sports kits to cuddly toys, it’s been a joy to listen to the stories that make the presents so loved and we’re hugely grateful to Bethan, Sue, Pam and all who enabled it to happen. Now, I’ve already had one roll of the die with this – you might remember Geoff the Giraffe back at the beginning of the month– but tonight, I wanted to share with you just three more presents I’ve been given over the years which might – I hope – symbolize something more of what Christmas is all about.
The first is this badge. It was given to me by a man called Tony, a former miner and dining companion at Chewsdays, the Castle Square Church Café, where we would spend time exchanging perspectives on the politics of the day and the Church’s role within them. For those of you joining us on the phone, it’s a badge which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the 1984-1985 miner’s strike; is inscribed with the words ‘lest we forget’; and, as someone who was just a toddler Kent at the time of the strike, it meant a lot that Tony gave it to me. For me – both the giving of the gift but, more significantly, the event that it commemorates, speaks of solidarity. The solidarity of the miners, the communities in which they lived, and all who supported them. Solidarity that was displayed – often with compassion, sacrifice and even humour – in the face of such significant opposition. To me, this special present speaks of the past and what that first Christmas truly revealed.
You see, In First Century Palestine, human life was generally considered cheap, nasty and infectious so the holy God had to be kept separate – socially distanced – from the human disease. Tiers were enforced determining how close you could get to God and for how long and if you were female or differently abled, from a different nation or faith, gay or transgender, too young, too poor or simply not born into the right family, you were to keep your distance for you were deemed unworthy and unclean.
Then, on an otherwise ordinary night in a little town at the edge of the Empire, God was born in squalor.
When we had defined and confined holiness to set apart people, times and places, God in Christ had extended it to all. Slowly, we dared to believe the outrageous truth that we couldn’t infect God with our humanness but God could transform us with divine grace; that God doesn’t love things by excluding them but by uniting with them! For Jesus’ birth physically revealed what God had been telling us all along – that God seeks solidarity with humanity, not separation, and God revealed this in the only way we could understand – by living a human life, dying a human death and rising again in a human body. So as philosophers and religious leaders pointed to a God who kept His distance beyond the heavens, they completely missed the God in their midst; the God who gets involved in the mess and magnificence of our lives; the God who came to show us that nothing in our present or our future; in our living or our dying; that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus, our Saviour and our friend.
Such is the sacred solidarity of God that he was born into poverty, journeyed as a refugee, spent time with the sick, welcomed children, condemned prejudice, ate with prostitutes, died with criminals and, when risen, cooked up a beachside breakfast for the rabble he called friends. Tonight, then, if you are alone or lonely; if you are ill or worn out; if you are grieving, celebrating or barely holding on, God sees you, God hears you, God is with you, offering solidarity and strength for tonight and tomorrow and every tomorrow.
My second present speaks of our present-day context. It’s a much-cherished nativity set given to me by a friend after our visit to Palestine in 2018. And, just like the city in which it was made and bought, this nativity set is complete with a wall which divides. Today, the world is beautiful and grace-strewn and full of wonder…but it also remains divided and hurting and so often filled with despair. So how can we sing of ‘peace on Earth’ without our voice cracking? How can we speak of solidarity from our warm, cosy homes whilst many will sleep without shelter this evening?
Later tonight, when we share our Communion meal, we will pray the Lord’s prayer. It’s a prayer to our shared Father and tonight we pray it alongside sisters and brothers across the globe. Some who pray for their daily bread today will go to bed hungry. Some who ask forgiveness for debts will be facing financial ruin. Some who pronounce forgiveness on others will do so with bruises on their body or injuries of the soul.
Before we get to the hope to come, we must linger a little in the brokenness of today. For the work of Christmas might have begun in Palestine two thousand years ago but it must continue in our actions today. The boy born in Bethlehem grew to show us the way of love – that radical path that involves solidarity, sacrifice and so much more. He calls us again tonight to invite the outcast, feed the hungry, house the homeless; to visit the prisoner, tend to the ill, comfort the bereaved; to challenge the corrupt, question the Empire, care for creation, turn cheeks, host parties, forgive, share, welcome, love. This Christmas, perhaps that starts afresh in our Amnesty campaigns, Government petitioning and charity supporting. Or perhaps it starts on a smaller, more personal scale by letting go of a grudge, asking for forgiveness, or by being a bit kinder to ourselves. However it rolls on tonight, the revolution of love heard in a baby’s cry in Bethlehem; a criminal’s final breath in Jerusalem; a friend’s prayer of peace in a locked room, must continue in our living tonight and tomorrow and every tomorrow.
My final present is the one which takes us to future hope. It’s a mosaic of a cross that a friend gave me for my 21st Birthday just a couple of years back [What? How very dare you!]. This year – for those of us in the western world at least – we have perhaps been more aware than ever of the fragility of life. Just in the UK, more than 60000 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, have died from contracting Covid-19 whilst many more have died as an indirect result of the disease. Many people are hurting – some who are with us here and now. Tonight, then, we remember that the infant Jesus was given the embalming oil, myrrh, as a sign of what was to come. We remember that the way of love that Jesus walked, took him from the stable to the streets and to the cross. Simply put, the good news of Christmas doesn’t negate the pain we might feel tonight. It doesn’t gloss over the empty chairs at our tables, come with a compulsion to be merry or guarantee us an easy life. Rather it says that God is with us in our grief; in our dying; and in our rising too. As we sing carols and share the peace; as we break bread and pour wine, we declare that death is not to have the final word; nor will pandemic, inequality or injustice for that matter. For Christ’s birth and life, death and rising are woven together in the story of the God who offers comfort to the mourning, hope to the despairing, new life to the dying. ‘Where I am,’ Jesus said to his friends, ‘you too shall be’.
Sacred solidarity, love in action and hope for tomorrow – these are God’s real gifts to us this Christmas. May we receive them, embrace them, share them and live them tonight, tomorrow, and every tomorrow. Amen.