The Nativity - Christmas Eve Sermon
I wonder if this year you have had the opportunity to watch the Nativity on BBC 1 ?
It is in some ways quite refreshing to see what tries to be realistic presentation of the Christmas story. For some people it will be the first time that they have considered the Christmas story because they have seen it on the television. I am not sure what you thought of it but actually I thought that it was done well. It makes a refreshing change at Christmas to see something in the media of value which doesn’t just knock God, Jesus or the Church.
What did I like about it? Well it shows the vulnerability of the whole event. The message of Christmas is about God taking a huge risk and becoming part of the frailty of humanity. God becomes human in the form of a baby, this is an event which we struggle to get our minds around. It would have been so much easier for God just to appear in the desert a fully grown man, but instead we know that Jesus was born as a baby and grows up as a child and young man. God shares in growing up like we do and that was a huge risk.
The BBC Nativity captures the vulnerability of the first Christmas in a way which I thought was very helpful. We often think of Mary and Joseph setting off on their big adventure together with the little donkey. But it surely wasn’t a happy journey, it was dangerous hard work. We need to question why Mary would go off together with Jospeh in the first place, given that it was Joseph who had to register. Why did he not leave her in the safety of her parents at home?
The BBC Nativity tries to answer this by showing the young girl Mary, who is confused and worried and at risk in her home. She is disbelieved by her parents, stoned by the locals and has to escape with a reluctant Joseph who agrees to take her to Bethlehem for her own safety. Even then Joseph can’t bear to speak with Mary until slowly events start to convince him that what he imagined in a dream really is true and Mary is telling the truth.
In the BBC Nativity we see the Magi who also place themselves at risk because they venture into the land of King Herod. Herod is portrayed as a mad foul beast and indeed he was. When he came to power he murdered the entire Sanhedrin. Herod also murdered two of his own sons, which prompted Caesar Augustus himself to say, "It is safer to be a pig in a parent's household than to be a son in Herod's court." It is interesting to consider what it means when we are told Herod "diligently inquired" (akribao) of the Magi where the child was to be born. Did he have them waterboarded?
God chooses Mary, chooses the situation of weakness and vulnerability. When God makes that decision he puts the baby at risk. There is no royal birth, no armed guard. God abandons the concept of safety and allows Jesus to become subject to the same vagaries of life that we are subjected to. Soon the Holy Family will have to leave Bethlehem because Herod will give orders for children to be killed. They will flee to Egypt as refugees. As an aside I want to say how pleased I am that this year there will be no children detained in Yarlswood over Christmas. It is a stain on our nation that we imprisoned refugee children who has committed no crime and the fact that it has ended gives me great pleasure this Christmas. Well done to all of those who fought against it, including some senior church figures.
My vision of the nativity scene is always influenced by visiting the location now preserved as the birthplace in Bethlehem. The church of the nativity was built by Constantine’s mother in the 4th century and under the church is a cave where pilgrims visit the place believed to be where Jesus was born. Alongside is another cave where Jerome translated the Bible into Latin about 400AD
We will never know for sure what or where the place was, and the story on the BBC showed a more traditional stable affair with animals around. But there are important clues in the Bible to what was going on.
She laid him in a manger. You only do this if things have gone wrong. Choosing to lie a child in an animal feeding trough is not what any parent would want to do.
There was no room. We are told that wherever it was that Mary gave birth, it was only chosen because the first choice was not available to them. In the nativity story according to the BBC, the reason there was no room was because nobody would have the adulteress under their roof. There might be a point here. Why could Joseph not find any relatives in his own town who will give up their own room when his wife is giving birth? It is hard to imagine circumstances in which people will be so cruel. Sadly it has to be said that religion itself and cultural pride will often drive people to unbelievable depths of cruelty. Even today there are those who believe that women should be killed for sexual offences. Parents will kill their own daughters, courts will condemn women to be stoned to death - even today. So perhaps it is unsurprising that Mary and Joseph are not welcomed. We all know that it is impossible to keep a secret in Bedford a town of 160,000, keeping some juicy gossip about sexual indiscretion quiet in Bethlehem with a few thousand folks would be impossible. Mary would live with a constant stain on her character and know what it was to have people talk behind her back about her poor morality.
Shepherds and foreigners came Little wonder then that the visitors are not close family, but shepherds and foreigners. As Sam reminded us last week, Shepherds were migrant workers who were looked down upon at the time. Magi were not God’s people they were foreigners. Isn’t there a remarkable irony that these two groups of people were unsuitable to be welcomed into religious worship, but they were the ones who God invited?
There is much to think about in this wonderful and compelling story. Perhaps the most poignant words which sum up so much of what was going on were the words ‘there was no room for them.’
Whatever is meant by the word ‘inn’, a guest house, a hotel, that is largely irrelevant. The point made is that the best place where the baby could have been born was not available for Mary, Joseph and the baby. They therefore had to find space wherever they could. There was no room in the hearts of extended family, friends, anyone they approached.
The good religious people were all so full of hatred, pride and prejudice that they had no room for Jesus. So this year we have to be the kinds of people who look for the people like Joseph and Mary, the rejected the poor. It is not our job as Christians to reprimand people, to cast judgement upon them, there are many around us who will do more than their fair share of that. It is our duty to make sure that we show such attitudes of love and acceptance that if Joseph had knocked on our door he would have been welcomed and Mary would not have been forced to give birth amongst the animals. Charles Royden