s005g98 Christmass Somerton Park 25/12/98
"the Word ... dwelt among us" John 1.14
May I begin by wishing you all, here at St Philips, as well as all around the world via the Internet, a joyous Christmass and holiday season.
Christmass is unique in the sense that traditionally it was the one festival when people could come and receive the Holy Communion twice in one day. Devout people in the past would perhaps come to the Midnight Mass and then one of the services the following morning, receiving the Holy Communion on both occasions. I would guess that this was because there were often different readings for the separate services, and also people may well have come for different reasons - the Midnight Mass for their own devotion and the Christmass Day service for the family; or perhaps vise versa.
This alerts me to the fact that people come to Church for different reasons. One might come to sing the carols lustily, another might come and get most out of the service by ignoring the liturgy itself and be content with their own thoughts and prayers. (Actually it is your own thoughts and prayers which are more important than the liturgy). Some may come out of duty, others may come perhaps unsure of why they come at all. It is one of the interesting aspects of my existence as a priest that I am supposed to have some inkling of why individuals come and to try to respond appropriately. However I would never pretend to know - for I am not given the gift of ESP.
I am grateful to Catherine ((my wife)) who this year, quite some time ago, put her mind to thinking about my Christmass sermon. For the sermon at Christmass is often the hardest sermon to compose, trying to think of something "new" to say, to a congregation who, one feels has heard the same story countless times before. It is also (most years) when clergy have to put together two sermons in one week. There have been times when I thought if I have to sing "While shepherd washed their socks by night" even just one more time - I would go out of my mind :-) However here at Somerton Park with just one church, that particular one is less of a problem.
But Catherine, in her preparation, alerted me to the fact that we have a couple of versions of the Christmass story - Matthew and Luke give us a down to earth account of the physical events as they might have happened - the shepherds, the stable and the wise men -- whereas St John gives us what he thinks they mean in the eternal scheme of things - the Word ... dwelt among us.
I saw for the first time that this parallels the two stories of creation in Genesis, where one gives us how things might have happened, God breathing the breath of life into the man of dust and finally creating woman to be a helper for him - in stark contrast to the other, in the first chapter, where humanity is made as the pinnacle of creation by the word of God in an instant, "male and female created he them".
I have always looked at these two (irreconcilable) Genesis accounts realising that much of my existence is like this. Some times I think I can conquer the world, that the lot of humanity reaches to the skies - but at other times I despair at the wheeling and dealing, the frustration and sickness, that characterises so much of our ordinary existence. As a member of the clergy once wryly remarked: "Life itself is a sexually transmitted terminal disease" - disease here is used in the sense of St Augustine who said "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee".
But even in the midst of the plain ordinariness of life come flashes of compassion - just as angels touched the characters in the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke's stories. There are Herods now just as then, unscrupulously waiting to crush any dissent, any possible rival to their power. There are religious leaders now just as then concerned with correctness rather than people. Still into the midst of ordinary existence, touches of the divine are and were seen in the lives of ordinary people. Not just in the lives of those we look up to - those like Dr Andy Thomas and Senator John Glenn, the Archbishop, Dr Victor Chang, the Princess of Wales; the lives of those we think reach to the stars - but in the ordinary lives of relatively nondescript people like you and I, those of the dust of the earth.
We are all different, and we have all come to Church to worship the infant Jesus for different reasons, perhaps for reasons which we don't immediately discern in ourselves, or even because we simply want to be with someone else, and this is a good place to come together ... Look for those flashes of the divine. Anything which is good, affirming, and giving - is of God. As the author of the "Desiderata" aptly says: "Many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism ... with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world ..."
These flashes of the divine happen in all sorts of circumstances to all sorts of people. I was recently browsing the Internet and found an article on Jesus bidding us to wash other people's feet. The author of these words, Sandy Prather, commented that this seemed an unusual request until she saw parents washing a baby who was squirming .. Her comment is that so often we are already doing what Jesus wants without even knowing it. She says: "We spend our lives fulfilling Jesus' command and, most often, we do not even see it. I note the ordinariness of the command. Jesus doesn't say, "Go and perform miracles that would startle the heavens." He doesn't say, "Go and make the sun spin in the sky; have ecstatic visions; walk on water; multiply loaves and fishes." He doesn't even say do extraordinary acts of preaching, teaching or healing. Instead, he says, "Go and wash one another's feet."" ("Our Family" magazine Oct 1998 Internet edition).
I think in all my years of preaching at Christmass, I have always focused on the words "The word was made flesh" which I now come to see is to concentrate on the miracle of the incarnation - that the "holy" divine somehow came to be joined with the "unholy" humanity - a bit like if oil and water mixed were to merge miraculously into one. I wonder if this is to miss the reality twice.
The incarnation means that there is no oil and water - holy things and holy people are real, corporate and fleshly. To look for holiness as something mysterious, ætherial, other ... is to be looking in quite the wrong direction. We are real, corporate and fleshly, not as a sort of probationary period before we can graduate and be rid of the flesh and blood - which is so opposed to that which is "holy". No, we find God in the flesh and blood of our own existence, or we find God not at all.
But secondly, the Word ... came to dwell among us. And that is what Jesus did. Jesus didn't come to change us. Jesus didn't come to make people go to Church. Jesus didn't come to make us give more money. Jesus came simply to be among us and to accept such hospitality as was offered him.
Jesus came to rich and poor, religious and those with no pretensions of being religious, Jew, Samaritan and Gentile, the "shakers and movers" of society as well as the despised tax collectors ... There was no one excluded.
And there is no one excluded to this day. The message of Christmass means that Jesus can be found in the ordinary things of this life, in your house and in mine. Jesus will be found, not in the shrine or the Bible in the bookcase, but at the table as we eat, with us in bed as we sleep ... The message of Easter is that despite the efforts of humanity, God was not defeated, and Jesus is still to be found ... not in the shrine or the Bible in the bookcase, but at the table as we eat, with us in bed as we sleep ...
Jesus coped with and thereby blessed ordinary life as he found it in his day - and that would have been with much fewer creature comforts that most of us enjoy. He wasn't born with a sign around his neck: "Son of God - Fragile - Handle with Care!" as we might assume after the wise men visited. I suspect the Blessed Virgin Mary didn't genuflect three times before changing his nappies :-)
May all of us see glimpses of Jesus sharing our meal or our bed ... not to change us, make us go to Church, or give more. Jesus continues to come to be among us and to accept such hospitality as we offer him.
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