Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3, Luke 2.15 – 2
Introduction – Christmas choices
For reasons with which I will not bore you, Nancy and I invited ourselves at very short notice to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in Wokingham. The welcome was warm, the company delightful and the spread, ample and delicious. There was no turkey but a fabulous side of beef and a lovely salmon wrapped in pastry – and all the trimmings. I opted for the beef – a difficult choice for I am fond of salmon.
Today with our readings we are offered two attractive and substantial dishes. I’m going to be greedy and opt for a bit of both and hope I do not give you indigestion.
A passionate prophet
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers us an amazing vision – of a city ransacked and ruined, gloriously restored and of an exhausted, dispirited and exiled people wonderfully returned. And on the lips of the prophet there is a longing and an anticipation for more. ’For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent – for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn – her salvation like a blazing torch.’
And I have met and heard of good people, pastors and priests who have for their own place, parish or town made that plea and pledge of the prophet their own. We could make it our own . . .
For Newtown’s sake we will not keep silent – till the battered and bruised find courage and hope, the lonely friendship, the used and abused – men and women, and there are many of them – deliverance and dignity, the dealers are seen no more lurking round the garages on Amity Road or behind the nursery in Palmer Park, and, some might want mischievously to add, plans for the mass rapid transit system beside the Thames – thwarted!
Mary, angels, a manger and the shepherds
If the passage from Isaiah was the salmon in pastry, the gospel from St Luke is the beef. The reading draws to a close with the haunting, poignant comment that Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Ch2.19) Avery similar comment is made again just a little later in the gospel after Joseph and Mary to their great relief found the young Jesus debating in the temple courts in Jerusalem.
Sadly, while one part of the Christian church has in the past elevated Mary to heights which would have made her both dizzy and embarrassed, another part has in reaction often ignored her entirely. (I believe a few weeks ago Ali Marshall preached most helpfully about her.) Mary is an extraordinary example of suffering love, great integrity and profound faith, and when I think on her, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’
Angels – I’m rather keen on them. They play a most significant role in both the Old and New Testaments – warning, encouraging, guiding, protecting. Their appearance at times is utterly overwhelming but others quite low key and down to earth. And I have heard from reliable and steady of sources, even Anglican ones, of the appearance of angels in Iran, Pakistan – even Birmingham. My favourite Christmas card this year was of a sketch by Raphael,of an angel both arms raised above his head, one leg tucked under his bottom, the other stretch before him almost as if he was hurdling – magnificent. If the angels of Bethlehem appeared anything like that no wonder the shepherds took note!
And now as we slip from the Nativity to Epiphany, two observations about our traditional understanding of the trappings of the former:
1. I do not believe from twenty years of living in the Middle East that if Joseph had turned up in Bethlehem and said, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi of the line of David and originally from Bethlehem,’ ANY door would have been closed to him. In that region historical memories are long, the extended family very important and hospitality a sacred duty.
2. The word rendered, ‘inn’, in our Nativity accounts much more commonly means, ‘a place’, ‘space’, even, ‘guest room’. (The traditional word for an inn is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.) At Easter, Nancy and I visited the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy, many of whose houses were built into caves on the hillside. We saw one that had been restored to how it might have been a hundred years ago. It was a cave, one part of which was clearly the living quarters with bed, food store and primitive kitchen, the other end, separated by a very low wall, housed animals. There was a manger carved into the rock. I think that could have been how it was in Bethlehem, where there were plenty of similar caves, some larger, allowing provision for storage or even an extra room. Beautiful though they may look on Christmas cards, it’s doubtful whether any young mum would put her child under the stars where even today the snow can lie, ‘deep and crisp and even’. I realise that these thoughts may cause havoc for the writers of Nativity plays, and now what of the shepherds ?
Their terror gave way to wonder, excitement and exuberant, bubbling praise. Can one not imagine them saying to one another on return to their flock, ‘Who would have thought that to us, you Abraham with your bandy legs and squint, and to me with a stutter and love of drink, an angel spoke and we looked at the face of God?’ The wonder of that is most beautifully put in a poem from Uganda.
Blessed are you O Christ child
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly people
could yet kneel beside you and
look level-eyed into the face of God.
Sometimes I fear the accumulated trappings of the Christmas story can obscure the central figure. Doing RE-inspired in Southcote just before Christmas, I got so caught up with my story of an unkind innkeeper that I never had time to get Jesus born!
A Christian for some fifty years and a priest for over forty, I still hunger to study, know and follow Jesus better. I share the credo of Theodore Doestoevsky, which I stumbled upon recently. Here it is: ‘To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable . . . and more perfect than Christ, and I tell myself with jealous love, not only that there is nothing but there cannot be anything.’
I end with words of a Christian hymn from India:
Behold how the angels sing;
Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth.
Love has taken a name and a form, and,
becoming meek for his helpless creatures
has come to earth.
The finger on which the sun is set as a diamond,
he puts to his mouth and plays with in the small cowshed.
O Christ, give to us this mind,
that as the finger turns and beckons
we too may respond.
He beckons us into a new year. Let us follow with courage and devotion.