(Isaiah 52.7-10; Luke 2.1-20)
Is the dinner in the oven, the feast on its way? The table laid, even? Guests gathering, preparation over. A happy Christmas to you all. Or are you anxious over the details, worried perhaps about what the conversation around the table might turn to in this year of divisions and polarised opinions. Are you aware of who is not with you, grief cutting into our celebrations. It’s good to be together, but we know that many, too many, will be left out in the cold. Our burst of festivity, this year perhaps more than ever, feels like a bulwark against gathering storms, uncertainty and anxiety.
Christmas is a season of enormous contrasts; contrasts between the festival of Christmas, in all its joy and excess, its warmth and its madness, and the ongoing reality of a world of conflicts and division and difficult choices. How does our frenzy of activity and spending and preparation, the desire for a good Christmas, how does that frenzy and that desire touch the reality of the complicated and difficult world we live in; and what has all that to do with the story that lies at the heart of Christmas, of Mary and Joseph travelling long distances, and Mary giving birth in an outhouse, and angels proclaiming good news to shepherds? How are we to hold these things together – our desire for a good Christmas, our heartache that it is not always so, and the wee babe in a manger?
Lancelot Andrewes, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, described the birth of Jesus as ‘the Word that cannot speak.’ This is how God comes among us, the Word that is wordless, the Word that only cries, cries that call Mary and Joseph into parenthood, into a different kind of responsibility and self-forgetting love. God comes, says our Christmas Gospel, not in triumph, showering gifts but in the newborn cry and the suckle, demanding our attention. Richard Crashaw, the poet and contemporary of Lancelot Andrewes, writing in the first half of that rancorous century that will see the outbreak of Civil War in England, famously describes Christmas in similarly paradoxical terms:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.
Paradox, the reconciling and overcoming of tensions and contrasts lies at the heart of our celebration of the Word made flesh; God among us, heaven in earth.
The circumstances are far from perfect, the preparation is incomplete, and yet God comes. Mary and Joseph, not yet married, have to negotiate the family politics of an unplanned pregnancy. We too have family tensions to balance, name or avoid. And in the midst of that comes the demand from the powers that be that Joseph register in his home town. The journey is long and arduous, with pregnant wife-to-be. We too know about external demands that disrupt and make life difficult. Many today embark on journeys long and arduous. And yet, God comes.
Like many on our streets and in our city, Mary and Joseph struggle to find shelter, find themselves excluded; Joseph is called back to his home town to discover it is no longer home. And yet, God comes.
And gathering around that manger, around that wordless Word, come not the high and mighty, or the especially holy. Shepherds, as they go about their daily life, suddenly and to their surprise find themselves caught up in a blaze of joy, a glimpse of that inner life of God that is glory. And so we come, leaving behind, at least for a moment, our daily anxieties, our preparations and our present swapping; we come to stop and gaze and wonder: for into our midst, whether we are ready or not, whether joyful or anxious, God comes. And God comes, as the angels announce, not to fill us with fear -‘fear not’ they declare – but with a blessing of peace, the blessing of peace of this wordless Word, reaching out from the heart of God into the heart of our predicaments.
The Word that does not speak lies in the manger – in the feeding place. He comes today, to lie in our midst, to feed us, as we gather around this table, this feeding place. For we come not just to rejoice in the baby, but because that Word of God that is Christ grew up and learned to speak in the accent and cadences of love. Taught us and emboldened us to fear not. And gave himself in bread and wine that those who follow might become his body and blood.
In Christ God enters the mess and muddle of our world to give of himself. Heaven and earth are joined; the irreconcilable reconciled; the divided brought into relationship. God comes in the midst of our festivities, our frantic preparations, our consumerist fantasies, and gives of himself. Today, to be here, is enough, as we welcome the wordless Word demanding our attention; born anew to feed us; creating space in our hearts for love, so that we might echo to the joy of angels. For wherever God is, there is praise.
Today we are invited, in humility and wonder into that praise which is the presence of God. Into our midst comes the gift that restores our true identity beyond fear – this is who we are: creatures made for praising and loving, for wonder and the joy of communion. For this is God, the truth of our living and our world – the hopeful possibility of reconciliation. Here is the strength of God, to uphold our weakness, and break into our same old, same old ways, restoring, renewing, reconciling. Gloria in excelsis. Amen.