The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Tuesday, 25th December 2007
Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-4; John 1: 1-14
Victorian stories, costume dramas seem ever popular on television. Recently, millions of people have watched a series starring Dame Judi Dench called Cranford adapted from stories by Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell’s stories are set in her home town, Knutsford in Cheshire. Visitors can still see the original of Miss Matty’s tea-shop. So, perhaps Mrs Gaskell was simply writing a good story about something she knew because she could with no particular purpose. A rather better known 19th century story-teller Charles Dickens, though, wrote his stories to improve people. His story of an urban Christmas where the rich miser repented and helped his poor employee to a good feast resonates still. No doubt there were rich misers in Dickens’ time and some of them might have been called Scrooge, but it seems unlikely that they saw the ghost of their former business partner and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. His story was unreal but meaningful, indeed powerful, in that it changed the behaviour of a whole nation over Christmas and charity.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked on the radio the other day how he would categorise the Christmas story. Did these things really happen? Was Mary a virgin? Was it mid-winter? Were there shepherds, an ox and an ass? What about the wise men? Were there three kings, one black and two white? Mischievous newspapers have since suggested that the Archbishop said it was all legend, and they have interpreted this as meaning that it is not to be believed. In fact he only called legend the non-biblical elaboration that the wise men were three kings. Even so, the Archbishop used the term legend more richly than simply to mean “not to be believed”. Even the non-biblical material, he said, “works quite well as legend”.
Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke tell us anything of Jesus’ birth. We generally hear Luke’s account with the stable and the shepherds at the Christmas Midnight service and Matthew’s account with the wise men and murderous Herod at Epiphany when the 12 days of Christmas are over. These magnificent and enduring stories are true and powerful. Their meaning is that Jesus fulfils the hopes of God’s ancient people the Jews for a Messiah, who would save his people, and that “God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” But like any good story they have subtle layers of meaning. Luke has fully taken to heart Jesus’ teaching that the good news of God’s love is for the poor and the outcast, for the suffering and the downtrodden. These are well represented in the poor outcast shepherds who are the first to hear of the birth of their Saviour. Matthew, writing for a Jewish Christian community, knows that they need to look outwards and recognise the universal significance of Jesus, who had not come only to fulfil the hopes of the Jews but to reconcile to God all peoples on earth. These are well represented in the wise men from the east who come to worship Jesus with three gifts that acknowledge him as their king, their priest, and their Saviour.
John’s gospel has no story of the birth of Jesus. Instead, as we heard this morning, he begins his account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus with a Prologue. He begins his gospel as the book of Genesis begins the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, “In the beginning.” His purpose is as far-reaching as the purpose of the author of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth”, begins Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”, begins John. He sets the story of Jesus within the context of an overarching story of God and his mighty works. God is. God loves. God speaks. God creates. God redeems. God has purpose.
God speaks. The Word was God. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. There is reason, logic and purpose in what God is and does and this reason, logic and purpose is revealed to us in what the man Jesus Christ is and does. This is a great claim that John makes: if you want to understand the meaning and purpose of things, of the universe, the created order, of the world and all that is in it, the way to approach the matter is not through philosophy or science or star-gazing or magic or mystery, or through the wisdom of this age, but through God’s Word, with him from the beginning, God’s Son Jesus Christ.
This is difficult for us to grasp. The idea of stories might be alive and well, but the idea that there are overarching stories, what we might call meta-narratives, is less familiar. But we live in an intellectual framework that operates with working meta-narratives. The old Victorian meta-narratives focused around the British Empire, and science and progress. Parts of these have long since been discarded. Science still features in the world’s working meta-narrative, that science has or will have the solutions, and that science and religion are inevitably opposed. There is a new meta-narrative in development that says that religion is dangerous and that children should be protected from its harmful impact. These are themselves dangerous ideas. Science and religion are not opposed to each other but answer different questions. The powerful religious instinct in children, and indeed in everyone, requires exploration and development if it is to have a beneficial impact.
The greatest story of all is the story of God’s love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the baby who is Son of Mary and Son of God and whose birth we celebrate today. This story gives us a working meta-narrative that can influence the way we think about everything. The universe is made and loved by God with a good purpose. The key to understanding it is to hear the Word who was with God in the beginning, and to know Jesus Christ.
May this Christmas story fill you today with the knowledge and love of God! May you have a truly happy Christmas!