Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
After all the frenzied preparations of December, it’s over. The presents have been unwrapped; the leftovers are dwindling in the fridge; we are almost glad it’s now possible to eat something other than Christmas cake for every meal. The only chocolates left in the box are those funny strawberry ones. Time with family has been enjoyed or endured. The tree has a few more pine needles to drop before we reach twelfth night, but the great feast is now behind us. Some shops already have Easter eggs on the shelves. For many, thoughts turn to the New Year, and all its resolutions to be fitter, healthier, nicer in 2018.
But it’s not over, not yet. The twelve days of Christmas end on Epiphany, with the visit of the wise men. Our crib will stay put till Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple, the pivot between Christmas and Christ’s passion. And as lots of people sat slumped on the sofa in a post-Christmas daze, or tramped through the ice on bracing walks, or snapped up bargains in the sales, the Church quietly continued its keeping of Christmas.
Boxing Day, the 26th, is St Stephen’s day. Hot on the heels of the birth of the Christ-child we celebrate the Church’s first martyr. Then follows St John, the Evangelist without whose timeless prologue no Christmas would be complete. Then the Holy Innocents, the children killed by Herod in his haste to destroy the threat to his power posed by the birth of one born to be King of the Jews. And after them, St Thomas Becket, the turbulent priest murdered on the steps of his cathedral.
It’s not exactly tidings of comfort and joy, this Christmas week soaked in blood. And for those who want to leave the baby Jesus safely in his crib, or pack him away tidily for another year, it’s jarring to have these memorials of the world’s violence intrude upon the scene. Surely, for this week at least, we are allowed a bit of respite, to shut the stable door on the world outside and ignore Brexit forecasts, presidential tweets, and the killing of more Coptic Christians in Cairo?
And spending time at the crib is a good thing to do, but not as a form of escapism. Already at the time of his birth Jesus is born in a borrowed room in an occupied country. He’s visited by shepherds, poor labourers whom Rabbinic tradition classed as unclean. Matthew’s gospel tells us that soon after his birth the holy family has to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous, murderous rage. The Saviour of the world becomes a refugee. The world outside is already deeply present in the stable. This is not the place to escape from it. Here the unclean touch God, and the outcast are made welcome. Here God subjects himself to the world’s power and its fear.
At Christmas we acclaim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Spending time at the crib, or meditating on the incarnation, helps us to see the love that is at its heart. It is for love of humankind – for love of each one of us – that God takes on flesh. And this is no simulation of humanity, no costume God puts on to look like one of us without really being like one of us. No, in Jesus God empties himself and is born as one of us. The baby in the manger shows the vulnerability and the risk of incarnation.
And if that calls forth our wonder, it calls forth also our love. To those of us who hope we are not Herods, babies are not threatening. They are small and dependent and trusting and helpless. They provoke a response in us. In Jesus, God trusts himself to us. He allows himself to be picked up and cradled. He doesn’t check our orthodoxy, our moral character, our achievements or our reputation before he entrusts himself to our love. He shows us that we are already loved by God. And as we trust ourselves to his love, we find that we can let down our guard, give space to the gentleness that so often gets locked away for fear of being trampled, be vulnerable in return.
I am always tempted to contain this vulnerability, to pack it away with the Christmas decorations, to keep myself defended, and to keep Christ safe in his crib, bubble-wrapped and out of harm’s way until the season rolls round again in a year’s time. But he won’t stay there. He’ll be taken to Egypt, where he’ll live as an immigrant, a foreigner. He’ll be brought back, and grow up, and what we have already seen foreshadowed in his birth will become the pattern for his ministry: he will keep on showing the poor, the despised, the outcast, the broken and the oppressed that he is Emmanuel, God with us. He will proclaim and embody the love of God, and those who love power more than they love God will find him an unbearable challenge who must be disposed of. ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ Where Herod failed others will succeed. The vulnerability of the crib leads to the vulnerability of the cross.
That’s why it’s fitting that the Church’s observance of the Christmas season should show us what God’s life looks like lived out among those who confess Jesus as Saviour and Emmanuel. Without the feasts of Christmas week we might be tempted to treat the nativity story as sentimental, or a childish thing to put away once we have grown up and grown cynical with the world.
Last Monday, Christmas Day, the last liturgical words I said were those of the Christmas blessing: that by the incarnation God would make us partakers of the divine nature. St John, whose feast was on Wednesday, is the great witness to the God who in Jesus takes on flesh and is born as one of us, that he might bring us to where he is, with God. And yet as the other feasts remind us, and as John’s faithful witness itself shows us, sharing in the divine nature is not just for the hereafter. It starts when in baptism we are made one with Christ, where we are given the gift of partaking in his nature.
So having prayed that we may be made partakers of the divine nature, the following day at morning prayer gave me words that showed me what this might mean. ‘Gracious Father,’ began the collect for St Stephen, ‘who gave the first martyr Stephen grace to pray for those who took up stones against him: grant that in all our sufferings for the truth we may learn to love even our enemies and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt…’ The feast of the Holy Innocents made me pray that ‘by the innocence of our lives’ God may ‘frustrate all evil designs’ and establish his reign of justice and peace. And the witness of that turbulent archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket bid me ‘put aside all earthly fear and be faithful even to death’, that ‘disregarding worldly esteem’ we may ‘fight all wrong, uphold [God’s] rule, and serve [him] to our life’s end.’
This is what it means to be partakers of the divine nature now. It is to live Jesus’ life amid all the muddle and mess and injustice and pain of the world. Of course it would be easier to pack away the crib and forget the Christmas story for another year: forgiving enemies and witnessing to truth is hard and costly work. But the baby in the manger grows up. He will not let us shield him from the suffering and pain and sin of the world. But to those who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God. And so the Word takes on our flesh. While the world moves on to the next celebration, we know that the good news of Christmas continues as long as Christ has faithful witnesses who make his love and life real and visible in the world. St Stephen, St John, the Holy Innocents and St Thomas Becket show us what that can look like. May they pray for us, that we too may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.