Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 30th December 2012
30 December 2012 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
At Christmas time we are surrounded with pretty images of all kinds - with lights and decorations; colourful Christmas cards; decorated Christmas trees; and of crib scenes - usually depicting Mary and Joseph with Jesus in a cosy well-lit stable with wide eyed animals gazing on - very much like our own Nativity Scene here in the Abbey.
But behind the pretty images there's a much harsher and less comfortable side to the Christmas Story.
Mary and Joseph, who we always assume were an ordinary couple living a quiet life in the town of Nazareth, suddenly had their lives thrown into disruption by the announcement that Mary was expecting a very special baby - and from that point onwards their lives were never to be the same again.
Their baby was to be born away from home - with all the usual pain of child-birth but in the dark and damp conditions of an animal shed.
Also, at the time of Jesus' birth, his people the Jews were living under the rule of the Romans. They weren't a free people and many of them longed to see the day when the Romans would be gone, because they felt themselves to be oppressed by these people in authority over them.
So behind the pretty images of the Christmas story were some fairly harsh realities - people's lives were disrupted; there was homelessness, pain, and oppression.
And right from the beginning of Jesus's life there was the threat of suffering to come.
Last Friday, just three days after Christmas Day, we kept Holy Innocents Day, when we recalled the story in St Matthew’s gospel of king Herod slaughtering all baby boys under two years old in order to do away with a possible rival king. So here we were reminded that as soon as Jesus was born, there were people wanting to see an end to him.
Then St Luke in his gospel tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated - offered up to God. There they meet Simeon who takes Jesus in his arms and after proclaiming in the words which we now know as the Nunc dimittis says: 'Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against...'
In other words there would be some who would welcome him and have their lives changed and transformed by him, while others would reject him and the message he'd brought.
It would be these people who would later in his life plot his arrest, his torture, and his death.
Now, all this suffering seems a bit gloomy as we continue to celebrate Christmas. But it isn't gloomy at all - because it reminds us of the central message of Christmas - a message which is essentially about loving and giving.
During this season we are celebrating the fact that God has given himself to the world by coming to be with us. In the birth of Jesus, God took on human nature and came to share in all our experiences as human beings.
He came to share in our weaknesses, to know our suffering, to understand our temptation, to feel our fear. And he came to identify with the many people who are exposed to constant suffering and the brutality which life can inflict.
But he also came to show the great potential for human life - to demonstrate how human life could be lived and indeed should be lived in communion with God our Father.
We as human beings often seek fulfilment from things which will never satisfy our deepest desires. We heard the prophet Isaiah in this morning’s reading almost teasing his listeners for putting their trust in idols - gods made by themselves who were capable of absolutely nothing.
We might be tempted to think that Isaiah’s words are not relevant to us - after all; we don’t make false idols and bow down to them.
But Isaiah’s ridiculing could just as easily be addressing US men and women of the twenty-first century as the people of Israel back in the sixth century BC.
Our gods and false idols can be seen all around us in the extraordinary materialism of our modern world, where we crave to buy and acquire more and more goods - our high street stores reporting bigger profits than ever as the post-Christmas sales began this week. But does owning and acquiring make us truly happy - I suspect not!
God’s desire is to see us his sons and daughters find real fulfilment in our lives, to discover the meaning of life - in the words of Jesus himself to experience eternal life - a quality of life which begins now and lasts for ever.
St John wrote of this quality of life both in his gospel and in his letters. In the short passage we heard from his first letter this morning he was emphasising how God had revealed himself in the person of Jesus - a real human being who his followers had seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands.
His teaching and way of life had brought God’s light directly into the lives of all around him, and those followers were now themselves called to his lights in the world.
So at Christmas we are celebrating God giving himself to us and to the world as the source of light and a new quality of life. But as we celebrate we have to be careful that we don't get so caught up in the trappings of Christmas and the pretty images that we forget what this giving really cost.
I finish with a poem called Christmas is really for children by Steve Turner:
Christmas is really for the children. Especially for children who like animals, stables, stars and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then there are wise men, kings in fine robes, humble shepherds and a hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really for the children unless accompanied by a cream filled egg. It has whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body snatching. It involves politics, God and the sins of the world. It is not good for people of a nervous disposition. They would do better to think on rabbits, chickens and the first snow drop of spring.
Or they'd do better to wait for a re-run of Christmas without asking too many questions about what Jesus did when he grew up or whether there's any connection.
Today let us make sure that we make that connection between God coming to give himself to the world at Christmas; offering himself up for the world on Good Friday; and overcoming death and giving new life on Easter Day. And let us open our lives to receive this gift which is beyond measure.