Sunday, 29 December 2019

Finding Bethlehem - Christmas Homily

Christmas Night – Eucharist – 24.xii.2019

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

What’s Christmas about? Lots of things - and I don’t really need to give you a list. But if I wanted to sum it up in once sentence today, I’d say “Christmas takes us to Bethlehem.” It’s there in the carols we sing: “O little town of Bethlehem;” “Once in royal David’s city” (which is of course Bethlehem); and in the Calypso Carol there’s the chorus, “O now, carry me to Bethlehem.” That’s where we “see the Lord appear to men” - God comes to his people in Jesus at a particular point in time and in a particular place.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” How still! Let me try you with this…

“When peaceful silence lay over all, and night was in the midst of her swift course: from your royal throne O God, down from the heavens, leapt your almighty Word.” These are words which resonate with me, from the Book of Wisdom. I couldn’t remember them exactly so I searched for them online, looking for the phrase “In the stillness of the night…” What did I find?...

In the stillness of the night. Imaginations run wild. Can't help to think about you and I. In a mental paradise. Girl I need your love like the trees need the sun. Relying on your touch. And only you can deliver. Water feels the herb and the herb's buds sprung.

It's not what I was looking for! And there were lots of other results before I finally found the one I actually wanted.

Christ is born into our world - but is it a world which knows what it wants?  Or do we think we know what we want, but miss what we truly need?

The American priest and preacher, Fleming Rutledge, has said, “the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ will forever elude us if we are unable to take an inventory of the gravity of the human condition.” In other words we need to recognise what sort of a state we’re in. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets. But the message of the Incarnation - of God taking our human flesh when he comes in the child of Bethlehem - is that God comes to us exactly where we are, in the midst of all our concerns; God comes to us in Jesus - and that’s why he can speak to us and bring us the healing of our most grievous wounds.

Christmas takes us to Bethlehem. What will we find there?

A visit to Bethlehem is a high point in any pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But what do you find there? One of our pilgrim party a couple of years ago recorded how her first impression was spoiled by the scaffolding which filled so much of the Church of the Nativity - and then there were long queues in which we had to wait. I remember on another occasion having to wait first for a service to end and then as a monk meticulously swept the steps down into the shrine - it was all part of the strict division of rights each different religious community exercised over the building, but it had the effect of increasing the anxiety of those (of us) who fear that they’ll miss their opportunity to visit. And when you finally get in, you find the supposed place of Christ’s birth marked by a silver star set in the floor… Another pilgrim photographed me as I reached down to venerate it - the holiest of places but the picture shows me looking very awkward with my bottom very prominently uppermost.

But that’s the point… A prayer I use at Christmas reads,

Blessed art thou, O Christmas Christ,
that thy cradle was so low
that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly folk,
could yet kneel beside it,
and look level-eyed into the face of God.

A child can stand and look straight into the crib we have prepared beneath the altar of our church - but an adult needs to bend and bow. The Christ-child calls us to set aside our dignity. But at the same time this is God putting aside the majesty of a heavenly throne to be born for our sakes in poverty.

God comes to us in Jesus to find us as we are, without any payment on our part, without any need for pretence, without any need to earn his love.

And he comes to us in our deepest needs.

This year in Bethlehem the artist Banksy has created his own version of a crib scene in the hotel he has built next to the so-called Separation Wall. The Wall surrounds so much of the town to deny its people free movement from the West Bank into Israel. The hotel itself he has called The Walled-Off Hotel, not the Waldorf but an indication of the plight of the people who live there, literally walled off from places they might want or even need to go. The Wall itself is a horrible sight, and Banksy has incorporated it into his nativity scene. He’s used very traditional figures of Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger with the ox and the ass looking on. But the backdrop is that wall.

It’s obviously at least in part a political statement. But there’s something more. High up above the Holy Family, the artist has made a hole in the wall and at the same time challenges us as to how we interpret that hole. It could be a burst of light shining through a star, or it could be the damage caused by the blast of a shell. It could be a sign of hope in the darkness, that barriers can be broken down, or it could be a reference to the violence by which so many people are oppressed. And both interpretations are possible in the original story of Christmas. The birth of the child of Bethlehem to bring new hope… But also his family are in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. As Justo Gonzalez writes, a census was “an inventory of all the wealth of a region - its people, its animals and its crops - so that the government would be able to tax people to the maximum. A census usually announced greater poverty and oppression.”

Bethlehem is a real place - now and 2,000 years ago. And we live real lives in real places. Two years ago that artist, Banksy, commissioned a Nativity Play to be put on in the car park of his hotel, next to the Separation Wall. The main point was that the characters were all acted by local people, young and old, people who lived in Bethlehem. It’s nativity plays in our schools which so often make the deepest impression on people in our own towns and villages in this country. In part that will be pride that someone’s child is playing their part - and the love which that brings out. But I hope it’s also because this is something being made real here and now.

The tradition of setting up cribs in our churches goes back to the crib which St. Francis built at Greccio in his home region of Umbria - and there he used real people, a real baby and an ox and an ass. In countries like Italy and Malta the Presepe or Presepio can be very elaborate incorporating the place of Christ’s birth into a whole village. The buildings might be recognisable in the scene as the buildings of the village. People go about their work as they do in the same jobs day by day in the real world. You might have to look quite hard to find just where the birth of the Christ-child is taking place. But he is there - and the difference he makes is real.

Jesus is born into our world in the midst of all that is going on in our lives. He may seem a world away. So many people know all too acutely the reality of suffering, the loss of a loved one, the illness of a friend. So many struggle to get by from day to day. Others have everything they want and might not give anything else a thought. And at Christmas so many of us party on, forgetting the meaning of the Feast - or are consumed by anxiety to get everything just right.

To all of us Christ comes with the message of God’s love for the world - of God’s love for us / God’s love for me.

I’d started by saying, “Christmas takes us to Bethlehem.” But it’s God who takes the initiative, so perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Christmas brings Bethlehem to us.”

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