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Sunday Worship 24 December | Christmas Eve

Before this reflection, we heard Luke 2:1-7, John Betjeman's Christmas, and a performance of O Holy Night. We also sang O Little Town of Bethlehem, acknowledging that the eternal light shines even in the darkest of streets, and taking time to write down our hopes and fears and offer them to Christ in whom they are met.

Picture shows a wooden craft filled with straw, fairy lights and origami envelopes.

You would know the passage we heard was written by a man, even if the gospel writer hadn't introduced himself a chapter earlier, because the birth of Jesus is dealt with in a mere six words: “she gave birth to her firstborn”. I wonder what else Mary might have to add to this sparse retelling. I wonder how long she laboured and who supported her and if nursing came easily. I wonder what words she whispered to her son as she rocked him to sleep for the first time. This wondering may seem sentimental, but it reminds us that this was a real birth and a real mother and a real baby. God could have come to us in a thousand weird and wonderful ways, and so it matters that the incarnation came about through the most ordinary miracle of all. 


God chose the risk and the vulnerability of pregnancy and childbirth, and so did Mary when she told the angel “let it be with me according to your word”, and perhaps we haven’t always paid enough attention to that. Childbearing is brutal and it's beautiful and it's painful and it's precious and it's scary and it's sacred, and God and Mary took all of that on together in order to bring Christ and hope into the world. We need to really see this part of the story, the nine months between the angel and the manger, not only to appreciate the wonder of God at work in swollen ankles and strengthening contractions, but also so that we might see that God still partners with creation in all the messiness and the mystery of life to bring new things to birth.


I said last year that it seems likely that our nativity scenes and Christmas cards have misunderstood the detail about Jesus being placed in a manger because no guest room was available, and that he was probably not born in a stable at all. Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem because it was Joseph's hometown, and so it is likely that they would have gone to stay with relatives. And the design of houses in that place and time was such that there would have been a single living space with a separate guest room, and so if the guest room was already occupied, perhaps because other family members had already come to town for the census, they could well have been invited to sleep in the main living space, which would have included shelter and a feeding trough for the family's animals. 


The new family will experience exile later, and there is still the scandal of Jesus’ conception and the stress of being far from home to contend with, and this is certainly a humble beginning for the kings of kings, but it seems that the moment of birth happens not in a barn on the edge of town but in the busy heart of a family home. It might not be the picture we have in our heads, but there is a rightness to it, as Jesus is born right into the thick of things, amidst all the complexity and contradiction of human life. It also means that the Christmas story begins with welcome, with people shuffling up and making room, and that so beautifully sets the tone for Jesus, who is constantly shuffling up to make room for those who have been excluded.


Throughout Advent this year, Mike and the kids and I have been sitting down to eat breakfast together each morning, and taking that time to tell and talk about a story from scripture. We worked our way from Genesis to Jonah, and then over the last week we have met different characters from the Christmas story. On Friday morning it was the turn of the shepherds, who spent much of their time outside of town and heard the good news of Jesus’ birth from the angels. We asked who are the people on the edge of our own society and what would be good news for them, and we talked about migrant workers and asylum seekers and those who are homeless, and about how good news for them would be a kinder and fairer society. And then we talked about how that good news might not seem to have very much to do with God, but it is part of what God wants for us and part of why Jesus came, and so it is very much part of the good news the angels proclaimed to the shepherds. 


The angel that appeared to Joseph said the child would be called Jesus because he would save people from their sins, and I think we often understand that on a very personal level. We will be forgiven of our individual faults and made right with God. That is true but it is not the whole truth. We will also be released from the structural evils that hold people in poverty and oppression. He will save us by showing us how to create that kinder and fairer society which shuffles up and makes room, so that we might turn the world upside down until it is kingdom way up. That is the good news that we join the angels in singing, and join Christ in working out. 


And so comes “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”. That line from O Holy Night is one of my favourites, and it only becomes more poignant with every passing year. The world is so very weary right now, weighed down and worn out by conflict and crisis, but it doesn't have to be like this, and it won't always be like this. God cries out with a newborn's lungs and suddenly anything is possible. I spoke last week about joy that strengthens us to face the bruised and broken world, and here is hope that does the same. It does not dismiss or deny pain and sorrow, indeed it recognises and laments over them, but it also offers comfort and a vision of a different way. Betjeman asks “is it true / This most tremendous tale of all?” That is a question we each must answer for ourselves, but I believe it is true, and I am certain that if we live believing it is true, we will see “a new and glorious morn”.

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