s005^96 Somerton Park + 25/12/96 Christmass Day.
"You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger" Luke 2.12
The birth of any child is a time of great joy and celebration; and especially for the mother whose time of intense pain is over. Mind you, I suspect that pain never entirely disappears. The love one has for one's offspring always retains that edge of anxiety that they are all right, that they will not hurt themselves or others, that they will make something of their lives, that they will form a meaningful relationship with another, and know something themselves of the love and pain of bringing a child into this world.
The child in the manger is the focus of everything at this Christmass season, both in the sacred as well as the secular world. The carols in the shops, the figures of the parents, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men all revolve around this new born child, unable to do anything for himself. Indeed, having witnessed two births myself, there could be hardly a less dignified procedure. Those who have experienced or witnessed it will know immediately what I am talking about. I will spare those who haven't, the gory details. I reflect that the only other less dignified thing that could happen to a person, would be to killed on a cross, naked, as a common criminal.
And the Church has not found that picture of God coming as a helpless child all that palatable, almost in inverse proportion to the comfortableness that the world has for this picture. So we get the Church railing at Santa Claus and Father Christmass and all the tinsel and trappings - wanting to dispense with the secular and retain only the sacred. "Just whose birthday is it anyway?"
Some in the Church have tended to want to deny was that Jesus was actually a real human being like us. God was God - he couldn't become like us, let alone be killed on a cross like any old common criminal. In this conception, God is in heaven, and we are here, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Humanity is altogether too sinful for God to become like you or me.
The Church has also herself, albeit inadvertently, been instrumental in removing Jesus' birth from normal conceptions, pregnancy and deliveries. So Mary was a virgin, only betrothed to Joseph. Both Mary and Joseph were descended from the line of King David of old - so their humble appearances were actually a bit of a charade. They were not really "ordinary" people like most others. Mary herself was immaculately conceived and perpetually a virgin - you can't get more alien than that. Joseph just missed out. Angles, shepherds and Kings bearing gifts compensate for the lowly stable after a long journey, and served to confirm how different, even alien, from us. After the birth everyone lived happily ever after (nothing like "normal" families) - the sacred has successfully overshadowed the secular, and the world remains untouched as ever - everything is "normal".
But the Creeds (which we dutifully say, and sometimes wonder what they mean, and further if we actually knew what they meant, we wonder whether we would indeed believe them anyway) state quite clearly "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God ... was incarnate ... and became truly human" - to precisely the same secular existance we "enjoy".
The message of the incarnation is that God visits the secular - despite all our attempts to restrict God to the sacred. Seen in this light, Jesus earthly ministry was simply a continuation of the incarnation. He certainly did not come to become a political leader, despite what some may have wished. It is arguable that he came to reform Judaism - in the end he added essentially nothing to the moral or ethical teaching of the Old Testament. He didn't come to set himself up as a religious leader - he regularly commanded silence when called the Messiah. He spent his time travelling throughout the land visiting saint and sinner alike. He came not primarily to heal as Mark 1.38 demonstrates.
I suppose as Christians we feel compelled to say he came to die for us and for our salvation, whatever we understand those words to actually mean. The garden of Gethsemane shows his own human unwillingness to be the victim of such a senseless charade on the part of the religious authorities. For why was he crucified if not that he visited the wrong people - the secular people - not just the sacred ones?
He came to visit humanity - to initiate, empower and accept the contributions of all - sacred and secular alike.
It is quite clear that Jesus told his disciples three times of his likely fate in Jerusalem but they clearly understood no more than we the reason for the necessity of the Cross. Perhaps the cross itself has become part of the sacred tradition, divorced from the secular. In the one saying which Jesus uttered about the reason for the Cross we hear these words, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many". Mark 10.45 // Matt20.28 This was a particularly important saying, for it puts in context the fact that Jesus actually went around empty-handed accepting the hospitality of saint and sinner alike. Jesus had a rather broader concept of service than we have obviously. Serving to him was as much accepting what others gave as it was giving of himself. In accepting what others had to offer, he magnified them, rather than magnifying himself.
In effect the Cross has down through the centuries been the thing which has touched the hearts of saint and sinner alike - the symbol of ultimate emptyness - inviting us and all humanity to make our own contribution. Likewise a helpless baby so totally dependent on those around him or her, is (to the world) the great invitation to care, to take time off from the struggling existance of every other day - the climbing over other people in some great race to the top.
But I wonder if the Church actually ever notices the world's desire to care or in effect depreciate that effort as unworthy. If the efforts of the world are denied worth, the world has no option but to return to the climbing over other people to gain some skerick of self esteem. Is the world to blame, when it is the Church who has not the eyes to see God at work in the world around her?
Can we as the Church look at the world's celebration of Christmass with eyes to see the good in what they do? Can we see beyond the tinsel - not to see the sacred event of long past - the birth of the saviour - but the efforts people in this day and age continue to make to care - and their real desire for acceptance? Can we see the incarnate Christ in the world, or will we keep the baby Jesus in the sanitised confines of the Christmass Crib here at St Philip's?
While we keep the baby Jesus in the sanitised confines of the Church, we inprison Jesus in a tomb no less (or indeed no more) secure than the tomb in which he was eventually incarcerated - the one with the stone and the seal.
It is almost as if incarcerated is the precise opposite of incarnated.
Thanks be to God, neither that or any other tomb is able to stop Jesus again and again being incarnated in all sorts and conditions of people - even in you and in me! This is the good news. God at work in your life and in my life - and in the whole secular world - as he initiates, enables and accepts the contribution we - and all humanity - make to this helpless baby - our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
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