This was our carol service, with contributions from members of the congregation. Unfortunately we can't capture everything here, but you can read our minister's refleciton. Our theme was Pause, as we took time with the baby in the manger.
Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
The carol 'Silent Night' offers a beautiful snapshot, the perfect Christmas card image of Mary cradling the baby to whom she has just given birth. For many years I scoffed at the idea of a silent night. I'd seen enough television to know that labour was not a quiet affair. And then I actually had two babies and I understood better that there are moments of perfect and precious pause amidst the chaos. Moments where the new life in your arms feels overwhelmingly real and yet completely miraculous. We have been looking at Mary looking at her child for two thousand years, but this moment is the first time she has seen his face and counted his fingers and given thanks that he has arrived safely, while everything else fades into stillness and silence around them.
I want us to pause with this moment now. Silent Night focuses on Mary and Jesus, with a nod to the shepherds and angels, but our minds quickly fill in the rest from the pictures we have seen. Joseph watching over his new family, wise men kneeling with their camels tied up outside, animals gathered around wondering why someone has taken up residency in their manger, the cold and bare stable that houses the scene. And yet the shepherds and wise men don't appear together in the gospels, and there's no mention of a stable either, only that there was no guest room and so they used an animal trough as a crib. It may have been that the family were staying with relatives in Joseph's hometown, sleeping on the floor of the shared living space where the animals were brought in overnight, because the guest rooms were taken or the house was too small to have any. In this, Jesus' birth perhaps set a precedent for our own family Christmas celebrations, when we pull out the emergency chairs and someone ends up on an air bed in the lounge.
I say this not to be grumpy or pedantic, but because I think there is something rather touching about the idea that Jesus was born into a family home. I rather like the idea that on the edge of the scene there is a well meaning aunt wanting to give some unasked for advice on swaddling, or a great grandfather hovering in the hope of a cuddle with the newborn but not wanting to betray his softer side. I think it brings Jesus closer to our own experience, which is of course what happened in the incarnation.
But perhaps the image of Jesus and his parents in a stable has lingered for a reason. I certainly can't shake it, however much I like the other picture. Perhaps there was no guest room available because the relatives in Joseph's hometown refused to take in the family that had caused such a scandal in Nazareth. Perhaps the outhouse of an inn on the edge of a town is precisely where the saviour that fulfils all promises but defies all expectations would be born. Jesus did not just draw closer to the experience of the many but also to the experience of the marginalised, so that through him those experiences could be realigned.
Let us return now to where we started, and I think whoever wrote Silent Night was right to draw our attention so closely to the child at the centre of it all, to that perfect and precious moment of stillness and silence. For however we might fill the gaps in the story, we know this much to be true, that Christ the Saviour was born. And whatever chaos might be on the edges of our own lives, Jesus weaves our story with his, so for a moment we too might rest in heavenly peace.