Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
This year’s Vatican nativity scene has caused something of a stir. Alongside the traditional, expected figures of the holy family, the angel and the shepherds is a host of other characters. Italian nativity scenes, or presepi, are often elaborate, situating the holy family within a whole tableau that represents local, national or international life. It would not be unexpected to find in a local village scene representations of local tradespeople, the mayor, the Prime Minister, various celebrities, or Donald Trump. The scenes make clear that the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, matters for every place and time.
But this isn’t what has stirred so much comment. The Vatican scene builds on this tradition, but takes it in a slightly different direction. Alongside the holy family in this year’s scene in St Peter’s Square are figures of the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, the dead, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. An explicit link is being drawn between the nativity of Jesus and the corporal works of mercy.
Conservative Roman Catholics have decried it as blasphemous. ‘It does not draw one to contemplating the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God’, huffed one blog. ‘Surely the naked could be clothed in a more modest fashion’, said another. Even Facebook didn’t approve, initially blocking pictures of the clothing of the naked man from being posted as ‘your post can’t include images that are sexually suggestive or provocative.’
Now, there are faults with the Vatican’s nativity scene. It’s a bit kitsch. Its theology is perhaps a bit clunky. There is definitely a problem with the fact that, one of the kings aside, the only people of colour in the scene appear to be the homeless guy and the man in prison. But to criticise it because the figures of the needy clutter up the scene and prevent devotion to Jesus Christ? That seems to miss the point entirely.
The desire to tidy up the nativity scene, to remove from it the representations of the broken, needy, pleading humans so familiar from our screens and our streets, is escapist: this is the world into which Christ is born, and if we trust his teaching, these are the people among whom he is most especially to be found.
It would be wonderful, I agree, if Christ was born into a world where people were not homeless; where there was no illness or death or thirst or hunger; where people were not imprisoned because there was no crime or sin. But that wasn’t the case 2000 years ago, and it’s certainly not the case now. And in fact it is precisely because the world is far from the good purposes God intends for it that Christ is born.
And this is the wondrous truth we celebrate tonight: that we are made for life with God. Jesus, who is one with the Father from all eternity, takes on human flesh, is born as one of us and dwells among us, sharing our human life. He comes to a people estranged from God; to a world full of injustice and suffering and far from the goodness in which God created it. And he comes to bring us home. And this good news is both personal and social. It’s personal because it means that our lives are not closed off to God’s grace. By taking on human flesh, Jesus makes our ordinary and extraordinary lives his dwelling place. And that means that there is nothing – not circumstance nor sorrow nor sickness nor sin nor even death – that can separate us from him and keep us from his love. Wherever you are this Christmas, whether that’s drawing close in love and wonder to the Christ-child in the manger, or feeling far off and alone or fearful or lost, Christ comes to make his home with you, and to bring you to share his home in God with him.
And because in Jesus the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, there is an inescapably social dimension to this feast as well. The Son of God takes on flesh – skin and sinew and bone – the immortal takes on mortality; the uncreated one becomes a creature. And that means that we can’t treat human life, or indeed any part of creation, as disposable. When the Word became flesh God showed us the inalienable dignity of human life, from the womb to the grave.
And if this holy birth shows us what God is like, and what humans are made for, it holds up a mirror to all the practices and attitudes of our hearts and our society that diminish and degrade those for whom Christ was born and died. That’s what the Vatican is getting at in its nativity scene. Those who complain that the figures of the beggars and the naked obscure Christ are missing the point that it is precisely those figures that reveal Christ to us. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?’ ask the sheep and the goats in one of Jesus’ parables. And he replies, ‘just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me’.
The Vatican nativity presents us with the world to which Christ came, and the people for whom he came. If we acclaim the child in the manger as Son of God, we are committed to seeing the other figures in this scene as bearers of the divine image too. This night God takes on flesh and blood to show us we are loved, and how much he wants to share his life with us. He was born among the poor, in a borrowed stable to a teenage mum. Those who recognised him and worshipped him were low-life shepherds and foreigners. In his poverty they saw all the riches of divinity. The Christ-child is at home in the Vatican nativity scene, among the neglected, the unimportant, the needy. For these are the faces, the bodies, in which he comes to us still, he abides with us still, this Lord who is always Emmanuel.