The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s005g06 Christmass 25/12/2006
'the word was made flesh' John 1.14
Like countless clergy around the world I am preparing this Christmass sermon in early December. All around you and all around me, people are busy buying presents, writing Christmass cards, going to Christmass parties, stocking up on the food necessary for a 'proper' Christmass dinner, and perhaps preparing for relatives visiting over the holiday break. In the southern hemisphere, Christmass is also our summer holidays it is the time we take off. It is a special time of the year, for both religious and secular reasons.
And yet for many, Christmass is not a happy time. Coming together annually as a family often is a time of tension rather than fraternity. Christmass in the southern hemisphere, it is summer and holiday time, it is also the time when accidents occur drownings at the beach and pools, as well as motor vehicle accidents. For the bereaved at Christmass, it can never again be the joyful time that everyone else seems to have. For those who have lost their homes in the recent bushfires in Australia, what joy they might have will be tempered with much sadness.
And I confess I wonder if Jesus wants all this? The celebrations fine. But the over extended credit no. The family fighting no. The grief no.
And yet in another sense, I want to ask why we do not celebrate the joy of Christmass every day of the year. I'm not suggesting that we have a hot turkey dinner every day with our extended families, or spending large amounts of money exchanging gifts each day.
But the incarnation is not about what we do once a year Jesus hardly came to live and die and rise again to give us an excuse for an annual festival, pleasant though that might be. We, in Australia at least, can come up with a horse race to have a holiday, or manipulate the calendar so that a holiday that occurs on a weekend is taken on the nearest Monday or Friday to give us a decent 'long weekend'. Again, I hardly think that Jesus came to live and die and rise again so that people will go to Church every Sunday it was the people who were the most scrupulous in their weekly religious devotion who hated what Jesus stood for so much that they had him killed. Christmass is something about who we are already. Jesus came to live and die and rise again to say something about who we are already. Jesus came to bless ordinary life the life that you and I lead.
For me, the frenetic activity before Christmass I am experiencing is no different from what was happening last year. Last year at this time I was doing the same things: buying presents, writing Christmass cards, going to Christmass parties, stocking up on the food necessary for a 'proper' christmass dinner, perhaps preparing for relatives visiting. Recently I had an email from a friend and the person spoke about some others I knew and I thought how nothing had changed in these people's lives.
What has changed? Is this the nucleus of the kingdom of God?
In Australia we have recently had an advertisement on TV for an ISP broadband and it showed a woman in a continual manic state even to diving headlong into the chute where the suitcases come out on the carousel in an airport after a flight. She couldn't wait normally like anyone else. And I wonder if our modern society is characterised by this impatience.
There is this Christmass ritual that we go through, yet it still seems as if 'life in all it's fullness' is as distant as ever. Perhaps we reason that by mania we might find what we are looking for.
Please, I am not against ritual. It is a good thing to stop and try to express our appreciation for those important to us. Sometimes the very pace of life means that such important things get left unsaid, and that is sad.
But I wonder if what we are looking for, that which seems so elusive, is in fact right under our noses. The incarnation is God's blessing on ordinary live as we live it. The incarnation is the sign that God loves us as we are. It is not a time to suddenly think of other people, as if we don't do this at other times of the year. It is a time to realize that we don't have to live up to God's expectations at all.
Christmass for me is the time when God blesses ordinary life. Church tradition has turned Joseph and Mary into a particularly religious family, but having a first-born child is painful, messy and, at that time, fraught with danger. It is hardly conceivable that the journey to Bethlehem and the birth in a manger was not accomplished without a few expletives!
Mary and Joseph did not think of the starving millions as they rejoiced in the safe delivery of their child they probably grabbed what sleep they could! Please do give to 'World Vision' or whatever. But the message of Christmass is not that God will give you something more if you do, but that God blesses you as you are.
During this last year I have been steadily working my way through the book: 'Theologies of the Body Humanist and Christian" by Benedict Ashley OP and recently I came to the part about the ordained ministry. He says here: 'This division of labour, by which some members of the People of God are given responsibility to build the community and enable the charisms of all to be exercised harmoniously ..' (p526) This felicitous 'turn of phrase' lead me to think that the charism of the Church is to build up the secular community and to acknowledge and encourage the charisms of all people who seek to build up the society in which we live. Sadly the Church is more often seen in opposition to all that secular society stands for. It is the church that has got to live as a servant, not as a moral guardian or spiritual advisor to all and sundry.
The Church has set itself up to bless those who work for the Church, and to ignore or often oppose those who work for the secular state. How often has the Church opposed advances in science because the discoveries cut across the received dogma of the church?
So the ideal Christmass for me is something about calmness and acceptance of myself and others. The ideal Christmass is not something I have to manufacture, but something that is. It is not an elusive mystery but a present reality, for one and for all.
I am not going to get upset about the commercialisation of Christmass for many people actually depend on this very commercialisation for their life and livelihood. Just think what all those out of work Santa Claus's might have to do! But I am going to acknowledge what actually is important and that is our acceptance of one another.
Have a blessed Christmass, one and all, for everyone deserves a decent Christmass. As we accept ourselves and others, may it lead to peace amongst all peoples.
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