Funerals at Christmas have been a recurring feature for me since I was a curate. In my first year I took a funeral just a matter of days before Christmas Day and I remember the family coming up to me at the Crib Service with a bear for our then 6 month old son as a thank you gift and this became his favourite bear. Yesterday I took the funeral in the cathedral of a young woman who died of a brain tumour at just 24 years old. For me this year has it’s own difficulties as my own father died last week and our relationship was not a good one, it was abusive and all of my family are finding that we are now dealing with the pain of memories of the past and there are some complications which are not helping. The knowledge that he can hurt us no more is a comfort, but I know my emotional energy is low at the moment. So if I am missing when you think I should be present or don’t stay around for long, please understand I have my own things to deal with at the moment and am going to need some space.
Christmas is not always a happy time. Just because the Coke truck turns up in the square, as it did on Friday, does not mean that all ills disappear. It is a very difficult time for many people, not least when grief is not straight forward, or the money doesn’t stretch far, or this year someone is not present who is missed, or the inevitable EastEnders argument is all too real in your household. Christmas is quite an empty celebration without some depth to it. Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings just doesn’t cut it when life is complicated or strained. Something deeper is needed.
The satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ this year has produced a Christmas card showing one of the wise men bringing an Easter egg to the Christ-child in the manger. One of the others turns to him and says ‘Too soon’. But what is myrrh, if not used for embalming the dead and to heal wounds? And without Easter there is no point in celebrating Christmas at all. We are left with just a winter festival of candlelight in the dark evenings, frosty the snowman and winter warming with chestnuts roasting by an open fire. Saying Happy Holidays is vacuous and has nothing to say to those hurting or struggling with the day, which is far more people than is often acknowledged.
People respond very differently when tragedy strikes or life is tough at Christmas. For some Christmas is cancelled. For me, though, it gets deeper and more profound. Christmas becomes the triumph of grace, of healing love and the hope which comes from the promise of redemption. Without this it is a very empty festival, one that has nothing to offer beyond anaesthetic and faith is about so much more than merely anaesthetizing pain.
Christmas as a festival needs the rest of the story for it to have anything to offer us. This is what I have to remember when I watch nativity plays, high on ‘ah factor’ but detached from the fuller story. It is only because of Easter that we celebrate Christmas at all and so we need to see the cross in the crib. Canterbury Cathedral has an outside crib scene and at the back of the stable clearly to be seen leaning against the wall are the two planks of wood with the joints cut to make up their Easter Garden cross. Cross and crib belong together otherwise the crib has nothing to say to us.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent and our Gospel reading gave us Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55). Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting and the news that Elizabeth’s child had kicked in her womb on her arrival brings from Mary the wonderful song, the Magnificat. That song of praise is radical because it takes us to what lies at the core of God’s saving love. It is radical because the world doesn’t reflect this and so it stands as a challenge to us. Favour is shown to the lowly, not to those of the highest status. Mercy is shown, which means that the rightful penalty for being feeble and frail humans is overridden with life and hope. Power dynamics are transformed so that the interests of the weakest and least able to control what happens are advanced over those used to having their way over others, abusing their power and hold. The hungry get food. Again it is the rainbow which wins through in how God regards his creation, not the flood and not passages of anger and violence.
It is because life can be hard and brings pain that Christ coming among us is hope. Mary’s song is our song and it is all the more powerful precisely when life is hard and at its rawest. Christmas is not cancelled when the dark clouds gather but the light from the stable shines all the more brightly. The light that shines is the same light that shines on Easter morning.
When I was ordained the preacher at the service spoke about the most valuable gift we newly ordained clergy would bring. It wasn’t our undoubted gifts and talent, energy or enthusiasm for the gospel. It was quite simply our brokenness and vulnerability. Power is always suspect and the model we follow is one who gives of his self, who empties himself of power, who makes himself vulnerable and is broken on the cross. It is when we are aware of our brokenness that we can be some use. The over confident can easily be tempted to think they operate in their own strength. Rather it is always in the strength that comes from the grace of God. Salvation does come through grace and healing grace at that.
The child in the manger, whom we shall greet this week and celebrate, shows us that for all our failings and frailty, we are created for a purpose. That purpose lies with the love of God who brings life out of death and healing from pain and distress. He brings a light that shines into the darkness and that darkness can never over come it. Those are the words from the beginning of John’s Gospel we will hear this evening at the Festival of Lessons and Carols and also at the midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve.
Any Christmas celebration worth the party needs to have the cross on display too. Without it we may as well just say ‘happy holidays’. For it to be Christmas it needs to reflect the hope and praise of the song of Mary in the Magnificat, where God’s radical love challenges us with a very different vision and with the love that comes to save us from otherwise being locked into the pain and distress.
Come Lord Jesus with healing and mercy, that lives may be touched by your presence, set free by your redeeming love and delight in the hope and joy of your Salvation. Amen.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th December 2015