A Sermon for Christmas
In a dream the Lord spoke to Joseph and said to him. ”Arise and take the child and his mother and escape with them into Egypt………for Herod is going to search for the child and do away with him”
Matthew 2: 13
This is an unsettling part of the Christmas story that sits in stark contrast to the confection of the crib scene. Yet, those who feel and understand the liturgy of Christmas know that in the midst of all the joy, there is also grief. Indeed, life tells us that laughter and tears, glory and sadness are two sides of the same coin. We should not expect anything else from the Christmas narrative, but that some aspect of it should make us question, as the Magi did in Eliot’s famous poem, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”
Jesus is born into great vulnerability, he is born to a young woman, not in a home but a stable, and the story of Herod’s fury and their exile as refugees only underlines this. If you grasp nothing else about the meaning of Christmas, reflect on this: the costliness of the incarnation. The beginning of Jesus life is a reflection of how he lived the rest of it – without power, status or guarantee. His only protection is the love of a mother and the intuition of a wise and resourceful earthly father, so devoted that even though he had every right to abandon Mary who got pregnant without him, he stuck by her.
The whole of the story of the nativity and indeed the rest of |Jesus life for e puts a question mark against the whole nature of the church, which is supposed to be Christ’s body in the world. The Church has often been far from vulnerable and has in fact often appeared in its history almost invincible. It has accumulated protection, status and power for itself and acted generally in a way that runs contrary to the way of Christ from his birth.
If Jesus is so helpless, so vulnerable, so devoid of protection (except what love and devotion can offer) then shouldn’t the church be like that?
On Christmas Eve we had the perfect illustration of the incongruity between the ways of Jesus and the ways of the church that is supposed somehow, mysteriously to represent Christ on earth. The Pope was attacked in St Peter’s Basilica on his way to say mass by a mentally unstable woman. In his own words afterwards, the Pope declared that he must remain vulnerable to the people. But in reality the Pope was surrounded by a phalanx of black suited security men who soon tackled this woman to the ground. Of course, the role is such that it attracts the mad and the deranged to make a name for themselves, but there were no security guards watching over the crib at Bethlehem.
The incarnation is fraught with both promise and peril. The risk for the church, catholic or protestant is that we create, cultivate and nurture the status of invulnerability. We build immutable structures, building that we think might last forever and dogmas that exclude fresh thinking and new insight. We put nothing at risk, whilst the story of the incarnation is that God risked all for this birth.
So, the challenge for the church is how can we do the same? As Donald Mackinnon asked, “how can the church represent the manner of God presence to the world in Christ?”
Charles Gore was a great establishment figure of the Church of England in the 19th Century. He was Dean of Westminster and successively Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham and Oxford. But, for all these establishment credentials, he constantly courted controversy. He gave away his considerable wealth and lived in a brotherhood of priests who shared all their goods in common, he supported movements for social reform in the highly stratified society of 19th and early 20th Century England. And to the consternation of his high Anglican colleagues he believed that the incarnate Christ entailed certain limitations of consciousness.
He wrote this of the incarnation, “all this way of conceiving of God’s self restraining power and wisdom prepares our mind for that supreme act of respect and love for his creatures by which the Son of God took to himself human nature to redeem it, and in taking it limited both his power and his knowledge so that he could verily live through all the stages of a perfectly human experience and restore our nature from within by a contact so gentle that it gave life to every faculty without paralysing or destroying any”.
Christ came as a vulnerable child, in complete dependence on his mother and his earthly father. He did not exercise power. Instead, “ he gave life to every faculty without paralysing or destroying”. How many people have been paralysed or destroyed by the exercise of the church’s power down the years?
This is characteristic of Jesus’ whole life. “In him was life”, life in all its fullness. This is the ministry the church should crave for, work for and seek to emulate as it tries to mirror the life of Christ. A presence in the world that does not boast, intimidate the vulnerable, judge or jostle for prominence. We need a church that is stripped of privilege. We need a church that has the courage to embrace the insecurity that visited Jesus from the night of his birth. All that is required of us is the devotion of Mary and the wit and clear thinking of Joseph.