Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas Night: The Vicar preaches at Midnight Mass

(Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

How have you got ready for Christmas? I have to admit that I’ve spent much of the last week moaning about having a cold - especially losing my voice and getting such a sore throat, as well as worrying whether I’d have any audibility to offer for Christmas. I haven’t been alone in my ill-health. And anyone at this time of year is going to find much to pre-occupy their hearts and minds.

So, do I feel ready for Christmas? Mary and Joseph, arriving in Bethlehem from their home town of Nazareth, were not exactly prepared. An unplanned pregnancy - even if it was part of the divine plan. An arduous journey, just when they could have been fixing up their home. And at the other end, only temporary accommodation with an animal trough having to be used in place of a cot for the new baby.

Nell Frizzell, writing in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reflects on the Nativity story in the light of her own experience:

This is a story of a young woman wading through insane government admin while hobbling more than 70 miles to her in-laws’, in the final stages of her first pregnancy, before facing an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without a health service.

I gave birth five weeks ago. When I was pregnant, just sitting on the 253 bus would almost inevitably result in me having to lurch off before my stop, vomit in a bin and, shortly afterwards, want to lie down and quietly die in the Euston branch of Accessorize. The very idea of rumbling through the night on the bony haunches of a recalcitrant donkey, when your pelvis already aches from the tectonic shift it’s making to let a baby through, and the instinct to nest, settle and pat your baby’s bedding washes through your veins unquenched, makes me weep.

But then there is a birth. A birth that makes all the difference. We imagine Bethlehem in the stillness of the night. That moment of Jesus’ birth comes to us as a “still” moment. There would be blood, sweat and mucus - probably tears, tears and pain as well. But we’re right to focus on the moment of the birth. It’s that moment of the birth of each of my children that has stayed with me in the midst of everything else that was going on. And with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we recognise one moment which changes everything. Everything is changed for Mary and Joseph - not only new parental responsibilities but bewildering messages and visitors and an even more difficult journey into exile to escape the attention of a genocidal king. And everything is changed for the world - for us - because this birth is a new revelation of God’s purpose.

From all we may feel of our unpreparedness at Christmas, it’s at this moment in history that we discover God’s love for the world as Christ meets us in the here and now - over 2,000 years ago and today.

A phrase that’s worked its way into my head this year is “doing Christmas.” I think it’s come from those people who say “We don’t do Christmas.” That can mean different things - from not sending Christmas cards, through resistance to rampant commercialism, to conscious opposition to something seen as a deceptive ploy on the part of organised religion to attract unwary adherents. Or they may just be a bit miserable in their outlook… But they have a point! Because it’s not what we do that’s at the heart of our Christmas celebration. It’s about recognising what God is doing - and from that, something of his essential nature and purpose. We sang this morning, “O come, O come, Immanuel.” The Saviour who is born in Bethlehem is given the name Immanuel - which means “God with us.” This is about the very being of God who reaches out to us, who brings himself to be with us. We need merely to bring ourselves to be with him. “O come, let us adore him!” We love to draw close to any new-born child. This is one whose love is for the whole world.

But that can be hard to take in. What do we remember as we look back over the last year? - what will feature in those “Reviews of the Year” on TV and in the newspapers? A lot of horror - so much that it’s hard to remember just when and where. Terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, in Barcelona and Cairo… and many more. Atrocities of rampaging gunmen whose blood-letting is not the more excused when it’s said they were not terrorist-related. Genocide against the Rohingya people of Myanmar. Natural disasters - over 200 people have died in just the last two days of floods in the Philippines, and we probably can’t remember more than a fraction of similar incidents from mudslides in Mexico to typhoon inundation in Bangladesh. Along with the helplessness that so many feel in the face of political action or inaction by government or opposition, here and in so many other countries.

It's difficult to hold it all in our minds. Quite likely we don’t want to. But there are certain events we can’t avoid - not least the Grenfell Tower fire and all its says to us about poverty, right judgment and action, and humanity. I found myself literally confronted by this when I was on holiday in London. A summer’s evening walk in Notting Hill with blue-plaqued buildings, upmarket restaurants and bars, a general air of prosperity, and then I turned a corner to see the burned out remains of Grenfell Tower at the other end of the street. It was a shock I wasn’t ready for. In one of the richest local authorities of our country, the estates surrounding the Tower are amongst the poorest and most rundown. And still so many of the survivors wait to be re-housed. I was listening to an interview with one of them the other day - 10 members of his family living in two hotel rooms. You might have an image of the poverty to which you might suppose he was accustomed. But he was very articulate. Why was he living there, I asked myself, when he was obviously so intelligent and well-spoken? Why had he not been able to secure the help his family deserved? And then I realised I should be ashamed to think that way. His name was Muhammad Rasul - and that might cause you to make presumptions. But the only real presumption we should have was that this was a fellow-human being with all the rights and needs which all of us should possess.

From the unsatisfied basic needs of humanity in our society, we look tonight to Bethlehem - and we’re told “there was no room for them in the inn.”

Where is Jesus Christ in all this? When people tell me they are “spiritual” rather then “religious,” I tend to despair because they are forgetting the person at the centre of our faith. I was reminded yesterday[1] that the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has argued that one of the tests of genuine faith - as opposed to bad religion - is whether it stops you ignoring things. The test of faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting or ignoring aspects of what is real.

Nell Frizzell, writing as a new mother about the birth at Bethlehem, examines what happens following a birth:

Oh sure, the gold is great, but I can just imagine the look Mary might have given as she realised she was now going to have to carry a lump of myrrh over the hills as she fled to Egypt on the back of that bloody donkey, as well as everything else.

After I gave birth I didn’t want wise men at my threshold – I wanted midwives, mothers and aunties bearing lasagnes and knitted hats. I wanted wise women: women who had known how it felt in my body, had felt that weight of birth and were proud of me.

And, of course, there’s the admin to get through. My first attempt at filling in the CH2 child benefit claimant form was so entirely unsuccessful that I not only gave up just one page in, but also burned my lunch and managed to get urine in my hair in the process.

There’s so much to pre-occupy us, so many challenges, but also an ever-increasing superficiality in so many aspects of life today. We need to recover a sense of depth. So much is going on that we can’t keep it all in our minds. And yet… what do we remember?

Tonight we remember that single birth in poverty in a backwater of a distant Roman province over 2,000 years ago. That’s what stays with us - not simply to look back on but because it’s real and speaks to us to this day. We remember that. Not simply that we should take the Christ-child to our hearts - but to recognise that coming to us in human flesh, God holds us in his.

[1] Mark Oakley writing in the Church Times, 22/29 December 2017

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