Christmas Day – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-20

A Happy Christmas to you all!

A few years ago, when I was at my previous church, I had a phone call from someone asking to meet up with me for a conversation and advice. It transpired that they were a counsellor in Glasgow, and had recently begun meeting with a number of refugees housed in the city – helping to talk through with them various traumatic incidents that they had experienced in the homelands from which they fled. The counsellor had quickly discovered that she was somewhat out of her depth – not because of the subject matter being gently explored, but because, as she told me, those she was counselling all talked about God, and looked to God and prayer as a response to their trauma. Her counselling training had left her somewhat unprepared for that – in fact she had been explicitly told to leave God out of any counselling encounter. But now God was being evoked and brought central – their need of God is all they want to talk about, she told me, God is central to their understanding and response to the world – and so she arrived in my study to try and make sense of that for herself. She was discovering, through the eyes of refugees, the gift that God brings.

Today we celebrate that God comes into our midst, as gift in our brokenness, as healing for our hurts.

We’re very good at giving gifts at this time of year. It is after all, we tell ourselves, ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’ But I wonder if it’s harder to receive a gift sometimes – that takes a certain humility, or at least a sense of what we might need. And we don’t always have that humility or know our need, to recognise the gift that comes at Christmas.

Hanging on our very fine Christmas tree at the back of the Cathedral is a small bookmark-shaped Christmas decoration. It has a series of coloured bands running across it, largely deep blue at the top, and then becoming, by and large, progressively lighter as your eye travels down, before the bands begin to turn orange and then deeper red. Each stripe is a graphic representation, by a climatologist from the University of Reading, of the average global temperature for each of the last 150 years, compared to the average global temperature of the period as whole. The shades of blue indicate cooler than average years, while the red indicates those years that were hotter than the average. The deep red stripes at the bottom – the most recent years – show in stark terms the rapid heating, and commensurate climate chaos, that is happening to our planet, our home.

Our need, beyond the more obvious needs that press in on us, our need is for a gift that regenerates our relationship with and on the earth. That should be clear, but do we yet recognise it? And the other needs of our fractious, divided, anxious age, they too cry out for a gift that heals. And yet what gift comes this day? A baby born to fraught and pushed around parents, soon to be refugees themselves. A baby born to a young Mary and a bewildered Joseph. A baby who will grow up and, in course of time, break bread to share as himself, so that this day, he might be given into our hands as his body and blood. What is this gift?

In the opening 2 chapters of Luke’s Gospel, some of which we heard this morning, an angel, or angels, appear 3 times. First to a disbelieving Zechariah, to tell him of the coming birth of John the Baptist; then to a surprised Mary, to announce the birth of Jesus and seek her consent; and finally, as we heard, to the astonished shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem. And there is one phrase common to each of these 3 angelic appearances: each time, they first declare – ‘Do not be afraid’. We maybe think that such an address is in response to the understandable trepidation of those suddenly encountering an angel. But I think there is something more than a command to calm down being offered here. The first gift, given by the angels, is the gift of courage – do not be afraid. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, as if faith were certainty. Rather the opposite of faith is fear. Jesus himself will go on to declare again and again in his encounters – ‘Do not be afraid.’ For the opposite of faith is fear, and how much of our politics and discourse stems from fear.

Courage is the gift that many new parents discover as they begin to learn to respond to this new life given them. It is the gift we discover we didn’t know we had when confronted by many a new challenge. In our need, courage is the gift that enables us to grasp the opportunities and possibilities that love opens up for us. But joy and wonder are given too in the gift of this child. Joy and wonder lead us to expect those opportunities and possibilities that courage might seize. And love is what moves hands and hearts to respond, to wrap in swaddling clothes, to feed, to nurture, to embrace.

Courage, joy, wonder, love – these are the gifts given this day, in a child born, in bread and wine shared. They are gifts we need more than ever, if we are to negotiate the challenges ahead, of climate change and our divided society. Mary and Joseph, like new parents down the ages, discover that joy, wonder, courage and love – and their unexpected depths – in the gift of this child today. The shepherds are invited to share in that joy and wonder, that invitation into courage, and so return to their fields in love. And likewise we too are invited into joy, wonder, courage and love, if we are humble enough not simply to give, but to receive, today, and always. Amen.