So, what do you make of Christmas Day? More specially, of the stories that we retell each year? Is this a day that you suspend critical faculties? Or a day of children’s stories, with the glow of familiarity? There are different ways of reading the stories and as we grow older we find we approach them with more sophistication. Actually this is vital if they are to mean anything to us.
One approach seems to be to treat them as almost news reports. A heavily pregnant woman on a long journey of 80 miles to satisfy a peculiar Roman census, as if this made any sense at all. It would have been an administrative and logistical nightmare – just too many people on the move. And how far were they expected to travel to satisfy this bit of faceless bureaucracy? Some of those in the gospels are hundreds of miles from home. Then inhospitable hoteliers or a crowded house means the only space was with the animals, so the feeding trough becomes the only bed available. The Holy Family are migrants. Shepherds receive an angelic visitation and go to see something wonderful. There are clearly human connections, but just how much of this is really to be taken literally? Such a simplistic approach can leave most of us cold. We need to go deeper.
At the other extreme is the approach that just treats the whole story as being just that, a form of religious writing that sets its message in a drama. It should really sit alongside Shrek, Mary Poppins and other holiday favourites. So much of it is written with callbacks to Old Testament references, that it is just a construct from these to express deeper truths. It is the meaning, not the detail that matters. This is highly symbolic writing. So forget the tea towels for shepherds, leave that to primary schools as young children learn the story through play. This story requires us to decode it and understand its backstory. We need to know it so that we can understand it and reflect on its profound inner meanings.
I have a lot of sympathy with that view, but I think there is a third approach which makes more sense to me and it is a bit of a hybrid between the other two. Yes, much of the detail is written up to connect with the tradition and Old Testament allusions. But behind all of this, or more to the point, in the centre of all of this, there is a real birth. The evidence for Jesus having existed is greater than it is for Julius Caesar and no one doubts his existence. So a real man was born. A real man grew up and taught us to love God and one another. A real man was crucified, died and buried. And then the story becomes extra ordinary. It is because of the resurrection, Easter Day, that this birth is more than just a Happy Birthday story of ‘once upon a time a man was born’. Through the eyes of Easter, Christmas enters a much deeper story. And the first gospel writers organized their tale of this extra ordinary man in such a way to get over their central point: in him God was active and showed up into the reality and complexity of real life.
From this the story expands, rather like the universe expands from a big bang leading to stars and planets in their orbits so that one of them, earth, can team with life, and intelligent life at that. It expends with so much allusion and we can make the connections. Connections are another important way we understand this story.
We draw connections between the details of the story and our own lives, with the human story. So a holy family embarking on a long journey connects with migrants and homeless people on our streets. The Christ who comes to us, comes in those we least expect and some artists have chosen to depict the crib scene in these terms. He isn’t found in the palaces – that’s for rulers and the Magi had to learn that the hard way. Not in temples and churches, where everything is organized carefully and with liturgy and structure. No, this is an untidy arrival, when no one knows what to do and they are given a bit of make-do shelter with animals. Scratchy straw for warmth, but protected from it by the swaddling. So when we feel excluded, or are, when life is untidy, we have a place in this story. When others approach us in this untidiness, look deeply because in it God’s blessing has come by.
And look deeply into the manger, in your imagination or reflect on a crib scene. There you see a human life, all human life, precious and vulnerable, loved and loving. This incredible gift of life, of each new day is something to wonder at with joy and thanksgiving. It is remarkable, but even more so when what we celebrate today is that it is treasured and honoured by the love of God. Christmas brings each of us face to face with the loving purpose of our creator. And when things are tough, and they seem to be for so many people, through it, God keeps hold of us so we can rejoice, we can sing, we can join with the angels in their great songs of praises. Christ is born of Mary. He comes to us, abides with us as our Lord, Emmanuel – God is with us.
So, in the heart of this Christmas story there is a real birth, real life, real death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is born for us, as one of us. The profound mystery of God among us is expressed in a story rich with allusions to the Old Testament. These expand our imagination as we reflect on it and allow it deeper echoes to inspire and call us to follow him each and every day. As he is born in the stable, so may he be born anew in us today.
Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2018