Sermon for New Year's Eve Matins
31 December 2006 at :00 am
A very happy Christmas to you all. I want, this morning, to offer you just a few of my random reflections on the Christmas story.
As well as being a Canon of Westminster I am the Rector of St Margaret's Church, next door, and the Speaker's Chaplain. That means that when Parliament is sitting I do spend a lot of time " over the road" in Parliament: over and above saying the "Prayers for the Parliament" at the start of the day's business. Now , of course, it is easy to be cynical about politicians and to write them all off. But I always leap to their defence and say that there are very many honourable women and men who are there because they want to make a contribution to society and we should respect that, and in any case parliamentarians reflect the rest of society so, of course there are some who are less than saints, just as there are in your place of work. In one of his Christmas writings the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, reminded me that the three wise men who came to visit the child Jesus, whose visit we shall recall at Epiphany, probably came from such a world. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible and there do have compromises and deals in such a world, unpleasant as that may be. The presence of those Wise Men honouring the birth of Christ firstly reminds us that there is a place for that world at the Crib. Yes, the first visitors may have been from the fringes of society - the shepherds who were regarded as outcasts because they could not fulfil the Law's requirements, but the Christmas tradition also honours the visit of the wily politicians, the Three Wise Men from the world of political deals, mirrors, alliances; and their arrival did cause monumental trouble as the fragile puppet King Herod slaughtered the innocent children to protect his precarious puppet regime. None of that is so very different from the world we see in our Newspapers and on our Television screens - the world into which our Lord and saviour chose to enter.
Another reflection has been that there is room in the story for all ages. Yes, Mary was probably 14 years old at the most - some say 12 or 13 - but there is also in the lead up to the Nativity that older couple, Mary's cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. They were old and past child-bearing. And they were, in a way, a couple who, we might say, were disappointed with life - they have no children. St Luke's language implies that they are part of the anawim, the faithful remnant of God; they are righteous people, but they are both elderly and Elizabeth, St Luke goes on to tell us, is barren. For those who wish to have children this might seem to be a hopeless situation but the history of the Jewish people demonstrates that God's plans are not limited by barrenness or old age - witness Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel( the mother of Samson) and Hanna. St Luke puts John the Baptist's birth clearly within this great tradition and so I join the young and the elderly at the Crib, the hopeless and the hopeful.
A third reflection has been about those who are on their own and for whom Christmas is a difficult time when all around everyone else seems to be happy and with friends and family. Of course this is not always the case and Christmas can be a difficult time for families who come together with expectations that a prolonged period of being together cannot always realise. There are, too, those who have worked themselves to the bone to prepare for christmas and perhaps have spent far too much on presents and festivities and are worried about their debts and led to think "Whatever is it all about?". For them, as for the politician Wise men and the young girl Mary and the elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, here is a chance stand at the crib to look for the meaning to this festival.
One of the dangers in Christmas as we now celebrate it is that it can become just a fairy-story. Our pretty cards, our glittering Christmas trees and our sterilised cribs can hide the fact that it is into precisely the world that we know that God comes at Christmas & the God we worship is down to earth, if nothing else. Christmas reminds us that God is involved in our life - not in a remote, other-worldly way but, amazingly, by actually coming to live among us. One of our Lord Jesus' titles is "Emmanuel" which means "God with us". God, who loves us so much that he was prepared to come among us, to take on all the limitations of our humanity, to bring us back into the fold of His love. This is a God we can trust, a God who clearly shows us what we could not otherwise have known: that suffering is not His anger, it is not a sign that we have no part in Him. On the contrary, we see that in His own beloved Son, the sinless one, there is His overwhelming sharing in our suffering, and that through Him it can be transformed, becoming the means of fellowship with God.
T S Eliot said:
Endless invention, endless experiment
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence:
Knowledge of words and ignorance of THE WORD.
How true that is of our hyperactive, achieving Western Society. A phrase that always jumps out of the OT & NT is the very wonderful phrase - "God's faithful love" In this birth Christians have seen the sign of God's continuing and faithful love: in this child God reaches out to us to bring us back to Him, and "love only love was His meaning."
The Christmas event is not some sort of idyllic scene that says, "Come to Bethlehem, visit this stable of the nativity and find a cosy, comfortable peace for a while." Our rather pretty, tinsel-laden cribs hide the harsh reality of that birth away from the security and comfort & the medical skills and machinery of a modern-day maternity unit. Rather, the Son of God was born into the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness. It is precisely because of this that our Christmas can be joyful even in the midst of a harsh and troubled world. There is room for all of us, sophisticated movers and shakers, young and old, those on the margins of society, the happy and the sad, everyone, at the Crib. We cannot, nor should we try to forget the miseries of many people in the world today. Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from the world into a make-believe world of religious splendour and fancy parties. Rather, there can be a deep sense of joy that as we face the realities of the world and the realities of our own lives we find at the centre of our universe the principle of costly, sacrificial love. As the NT writers put it, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." The message of Christmas is that God, in Christ, has taken humanity to Himself and so every woman, man and child is infinitely loveable and precious in God's eyes.
Jesus is the only person who has ever chosen where He was to be born and we should see more than a certain significance in that. In this birth at Bethlehem, we see not power, but costly, sacrificial love; but a love that is open to all - saints and sinners, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, the marginalized and society's establishment.
Here is so much to be thankful for - and here we see the beginnings of that glorious picture offered by Isaiah ( Ch 35.1ff,): "the desert shall rejoice and blossom, they shall see the glory of the Lord, here is your God 'He will come and save you, a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way , everlasting joy shall be upon (your ) heads; (you) shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away'"
No wonder then that I am bold enough to wish you a very happy and blessed Christmas!