Sermon preached by Dr Alistair Collen, LLM
Several weeks ago I overheard someone remark that every year, his mother would say of Christmas:
“Don’t worry, dear, I’m sure we’ll all manage to get through it.”
Initially, I heard this as an ironic comment aimed at the despair we can all feel under the pressured commercialism and expectations of Christmas … notwithstanding that there is something exciting about it all too.
But then I wondered if there were a darker implication to what his mother said: the memory, perhaps, of a bereavement at Christmas? Or the threat, again of simmering family tensions, the familiar family scripts … and arguments.
Either way – submerged by tinsel, or marred by grief or anger – the suggestion was that at best it would be hit or miss whether Christmas delivered on its promise of Joy and Peace. Joy can’t be planned. And Peace, within and between families and nations still eludes us. Goodwill and imagination are fine things, but reality is often something else.
I’m reminded of a story by that most insightful of science-fantasy writers, Ursula Le Guin.
It’s basically a subversion of the myth that with our science and technology and by human will we can control our own destiny. But it also has something interesting to say about Peace.
In ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, a man discovers that his dreams during sleep, when he awakes, have changed the past and the present reality. So, with the assistance of a scientist with a special machine, he learns how to fashion the content of his dreams. And being a good and generous man he sets about improving reality, righting the wrongs in the world.
First of all he tackles racism, but wakes up to discover that everyone is now the same colour – grey. Then, deeply concerned with the threat of famine, he dreams of a world where there will be enough food for everyone. He wakes to learn that a global plague has just wiped out 9/10ths of the world’s population.
Finally, he dreams of a world in which there is universal peace, cooperation and mutual support among all people. This time when he wakes up, he find himself in a world threatened by Aliens, who have set up a base on the moon, and are preparing to attack.
It seems that there can only be world peace when human beings share a common enemy.
I think that’s a very astute observation of the working of the human mind.
Yet, the Judeo-Christian tradition has a yet more deep insight; one that I think it’s fair to suggest has evolved in its form across the writing of both the Old and New Testaments:
The common enemy is the enemy within each one of us.
An enemy that we don’t usually perceive now as ‘alien’; indeed, most often the enemy within me masquerades as my best friend, reassuring me about the convenience and cleverness of putting myself first, looking after number one: a life of secret self-centredness and greed.
And this is the situation that the Birth of Jesus on Christmas Day has come to fix.
Unlike Ursula Le Guin’s fantastic story, however, the story in our Gospel this morning aims to be real and, within the framework of its own metaphorical language, to set out the necessary conditions for the successful assault and defeat of our common, very real, enemy.
First, the birth of Jesus is an event in a universally agreed point in historic time. Secondly, the birth though unexpected in its unfortunate circumstances has been long-anticipated in the Old Testament, and the child himself and the place of birth has the perfect pedigree and provenance.
It could be argued, of course, that the correct conjunctions for the birth would obviously be ‘fulfilled’ when the story was written retrospectively by people who themselves knew the Old Testament prophecies back to front. And what about the choirs of angels … more artistic license? What matters crucially here, though, is that the birth, if in pathetically humble circumstances, was just so plain ordinary … but delivered by the most extraordinary initiative of God.
It would take a couple of centuries and more of further thinking by the Church to fully recognise what had happened that first Christmas: entirely through God’s own free initiative, God had become Incarnate, en-fleshed.
Now, the Incarnation is a mind-melting mystery of cosmic proportions; not a mystery in sense of being obscure or fanciful or even of putting a full stop on any of our efforts to rumble it. Rather it’s a mystery that when you think about it more and more draws you in, deeper and deeper, well below the shallowness and distraction that characterises most of our lives, to be grateful for the breath-taking generosity of God that he should take us human beings even more seriously than we can ever take ourselves.
And in these depths we learn to see how enthralled we are to the enemy within, and so turned in on ourselves that we fail to see the light and life and love in which we are bathed, in Christ. But Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection, on our behalf breaks the power of the enemy within.
Indeed, this is really what we have come here this morning to celebrate in our Eucharist. Not a collective, wish-fulling dream, but a salvation that enables us, not merely to manage to get through Christmas; but now, sharing in the love of the Living Christ, and as signs of the approaching Kingdom of joy and peace on earth, enables us to en-joy, infuse joy, into this feast of Christmas; and to bear witness in our lives this Christmas, and forever, to the Prince of Peace.