Greyfriars Sermon – Christmas Eve 2010
The years roll by and Christmases come and go. And year by year, amidst all the stress and the glitter and the hype and nonsense, I hope there is a moment when you catch a glimpse of the meaning of this birth – when the power of the story takes your breath away because it is the story of your birth and the birth of every child that comes into the world.
What an odd story we tell.
We take it to be the voice of God speaking across a Universe of time to the world, and when the word comes “it is delivered by being squeezed out of a single human body in the only painful way there is, and laid out helpless and derelict, in the heart of nowhere”. This utterly vulnerable child is completely at the mercy of forces that might send him to oblivion. Without the nurture, love and protection of others, nothing will come of this life.
It could all pass you by. We are so cynical. We’ve seen so many Christmases come and go, all packaged up in froth and bubble. For our generation, here in the affluent West, the vulnerability of a new-born child is almost a thing of the past and maybe we don’t see the danger any more.
But you do not need a religious bone in your body to see this birth we celebrate tonight in its Universal significance. There are plenty children who will be born tonight into helplessness, dereliction, violence and fear. You may not be moved by the Christ child, but are you moved by any of these weak ones, who will be forgotten by the world tomorrow? The poet Milosz speaks for all the children lost to the world by human blindness and brutality with these words:
Armies running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of a woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flames; a bulldozer sweeps him into a claypit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
The birth of Jesus, speaks of the birth of every child who will die unloved and unremembered by a world that still refuses to have its heart broken in compassion and love.
This is the heart of the Christmas story, religious or not, don’t you get it? Can you see it? Can you feel or will your heart remain as frozen as the ground outside this church tonight? This Universal child, born into dereliction is the story of humanity, it is not a religious story it is a Universal story.
If you have been blessed to see and feel for this blessed child, you have also been given the grace to see the blessedness of every child. And so we have no choice, down the years, but to continue proclaiming what the Gospel writers first proclaimed that he is indeed the long expected one, that he is indeed Emmanuel – God with us, the one who makes sense of our lives and give our lives purpose and meaning – a purpose of love.
What we see in this little child, born into a world of fear and violence is the situation of the Universal child. He, and every other child, is completely dependent on you and me. Tonight is an invitation to have your heart broken. As this holy child comes to us from God knows where, the one who holds the Universe becomes the one who needs to be held, the omnipotent one becomes the most vulnerable of all. He “slips into reverse and walks back past us”, from influence, power and kingship to infancy, stepping into the body of a helpless child who will not survive a day without your love, your help, your devotion.
If you take anything from the Christmas story tonight take this: that this birth is a symbol of the Universal child, of every child.
There is a sense in which we all share the hardness of Herod by remaining indifferent to the cries of children around our world today. But the holy child of the stable at Bethlehem can help you towards a new kind of life in which both joy and suffering are immeasurably deepened when you see that the children of this world need your love and action and help and justice and compassion – not your indifference or coldness or cyncism.
Little by little, as we allow our hearts to be broken by the cries of every child born into fear and vulnerability, we might begin to remake our world, begin to love our friends and family more deeply, love our enemies and even ourselves and finally love life itself.
Every year, I end up announcing to my family my song of the year. This year it is a song by Annie Lennox, called Universal Child. It comes from an album of Christmas carols that she and all of us have grown up with and that she has recorded with her astonishing voice. All these carols are about this vulnerable, powerless child and Annie revisits their significance. Then she sings her own song, Universal Child.
It all makes sense as she sings in that moving way about the children she has held in her own arms, her own children, as a mother, and children in Africa and other places made orphans by AIDS, and the children who are the innocent victims of the world’s cold indifference and then she breaks every heart with these words:
“I can see you everywhere, your portrait fills the sky. I’m going to wrap my arms around you, my Universal Child. I look into your eyes, so innocent and pure. I see the hurt, I see the pain, I see the human race”.
These words encapsulate perfectly the meaning of this story we retell to ourselves year by year.
In the darkness of the Mary’s womb, the holy child begins to grow. In the darkness of the world’s pain a light begins to kindle, the great hope begins to rise like a lump in the throat, that the Prince of Peace will not be trodden under jackboots and forgotten but held and cared for, even in a world at war, by hearts broken by love and tender compassion on this Holy Night.