Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
The first person in the queue for the Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols at King’s apparently got there last Wednesday. Yesterday’s service, which marked its 100th anniversary, was listened to by tens of millions around the world. For many, the lone treble singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s city signals the start of Christmas.
Carols haven’t always belonged in churches, though. Originally they were songs that accompanied folk dances, and only gradually did they become more focussed on the nativity story, and feature in plays, pageants and processions. Local villages and areas would have their own carols – songs like the Coventry Carol and the Sussex Carol. For all we might now associate carols with surpliced choristers, we owe their origin and their survival to folk tradition: words and tunes were preserved through the singing of miners, cobblers, boatmen and revellers, in homes and pubs and about town.
It was in the Victorian period that the words and the tunes were collected. To the older folk melodies which give us carols like God rest you merry, gentlemen and The first Nowell were added new songs, many of them staples of what we consider a traditional Christmas: Once in royal, O little town of Bethlehem, Away in a manger. And I’m going to upset everyone now by saying that I think what’s noticeable is that the newer additions to the repertoire tend towards the schmaltzy and sentimental. God rest you merry, gentlemen tells the Christmas story but reminds us that the birth of Jesus is to ‘save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray’; The first Nowell similarly prompts us to remember that we sing praises to our heavenly Lord ‘that hath made heaven and earth of naught, and with his blood mankind hath bought.’ There’s an earthiness to them: they don’t shy away from the pain and mess of life – for Jesus or for us.
The later, Victorian carols don’t always manage this. ‘Mary was that mother mild’, we sing, forgetting that just two days ago in church we heard Mary’s revolutionary anthem, the Magnificat, as our Gospel reading, with the mighty being cast down and the rich sent away empty. Bethlehem does not lie still and peaceful. And as for the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes: the centre of the Christmas story is the truth that in Jesus, God becomes one of us. He takes on real human flesh, and as a real human baby he does all the things that real human babies do. It probably wasn’t a silent night in Bethlehem.
And we too have to be careful, I think, not to sanitise the story, to tidy it up, to impose on it our wishful thinking. It’s so easy to hear the glad tidings of peace on earth and goodwill to men as the promise of rescue from all that is not peaceful or glad or good – and there’s a lot of that in the world at the moment. Perhaps as we sing we might recognise that we long for a saviour – that human pride and folly are not so easily untangled. We look at the world and see its pain and brokenness and we want someone to sort out Brexit, and Trump, and Syria. We want someone to rescue us from the broken relationship, the hidden addiction, the chemo, the anxiety, the fear. We want a saviour who will come and lift us out of the mess. Instead, in Jesus we get a Saviour who enters right into it.
For Jesus does not come to a make-believe world from which pain and suffering and fear have been exiled so that we can pretend everything is happy. He came in the days when a decree went out from Emperor Augustus. That is, he came to a people living under occupation, exploited and oppressed by the Romans, taxed into poverty, and suffering the humiliation of being a vassal state. He is born to a poor couple with nowhere to stay, who are far from home and loved ones, and who will all too soon become refugees.
And he comes not as a warrior or king or political leader, but as a baby. And we might wonder what sort of use this Saviour is, who is so utterly dependent on his mother; this Word made flesh who cannot speak. But to wonder this is to engage with the world on the terms we’ve come to believe are inevitable. We feel threatened and so we must threaten back. We are afraid and so we will build walls, tighten immigration, make bombs. We fear vulnerability so we numb our pain and shove our hurts into a box on which we slam the lid tight so we can pretend they can’t harm us.
This baby shows us a different way. In this act of divine humility God takes on flesh and is born as one of us. He comes to us not in power but in vulnerability. God, who is creator of all that is, the one to whom all glory and dominion belong, is born of the Virgin Mary. He lets himself be held, cuddled, nursed at Mary’s breast. And in taking on humanity he shows us that flesh and blood is capable of bearing divinity. And that means that my life is a place where God wants to make a home. And so is yours.
And if you think your life might offer a poor dwelling to God, look at how he comes to us in Jesus, in a borrowed outhouse, among the poorest of society. He comes close to us in poverty. When God looks on the world he made he loves it. He sorrows for it, too, in its waywardness, its violence, its selfishness, its injustice. But he doesn’t write it off. He chooses to be born as one of us, to come right into the midst of the world’s pain and brokenness, to make himself subject to it. That’s why the shadow of the cross hangs over so many of the traditional carols: the vulnerability extends beyond the stable. It leads to a hill outside Jerusalem, where Jesus is killed, and Mary once again receives her son’s body into her arms. This is what God’s love looks like: not God far off but God with us, embracing our poverty and loving us back to life. In Jesus, God asks us to risk vulnerability too by loving others, and receiving their love; by reaching across the chill of division with words of penitence or forgiveness; by daring to hope that our habits of sin and selfishness and greed do not have the final word; by honouring the dignity of the lowly among whom Jesus was born.
Vulnerability is costly, which is why we often prefer to avoid it. It’s easier to pretend, to indulge in a spot of Christmas wishful thinking that the world and our lives are fine if we can just keep the hurting, difficult, messy bits out of the way. But Jesus’ life shows us that it is in precisely those places that we may find ourselves closest to him, as he has come close to us in fragile human flesh. Your life is the place God wants to make his home. That really is tidings of comfort and joy worth singing about. Happy Christmas.