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Christmas Eve 2002

Sermon preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
24th December 2002

I wonder if you watched the BBC programme this year on the Virgin Mary. I watched and following the recent press reports, I expected that it was going to be shocking stuff. Actually it wasn’t. It did not, as suggested in the media reports, claim that Jesus birth was the result of rape by a Roman soldier, it told us about the rumour and interviewed an ‘expert’ who acknowledged it was most probably a later slur.

What it did try and do was to strip away some of the nonsense which has been built up around Mary and which is not at all in the Bible, and it tried to help us to see her in the context of her society. The point of the programme was to encourage us to think - Mary was not a blond haired, white woman with a blue scarf as depicted in medieval art, she was a young child who was put into an arranged marriage with an older man and who must have been terrified when she suddenly found out that she was to have a baby.

This was seen by some as a vicious attack upon Christianity, I thought it might just have been a helpful programme, which explored some of the facts after 2,000 years of romanticism. I would also suggest that this is exactly what Hereford Cathedral have tried to do this year by having a nativity scene with Jesus shown in a shopping trolley. It has been decried as bad taste, and in a way it is bad taste, it is disrespectful, but the truth is that the nativity in Bethlehem is a demonstration of what many people would think disrespectful and bad taste. After his birth Jesus is laid perhaps in a stone or wooden trough, which reminds us that it was in a place where animals feed, he is not in a maternity ward or anything suitable for the time. He is certainly not in a king's palace.

God uses the juxtaposition, in choosing unmarried Mary to give birth to the Messiah, in relatively meagre circumstances, we can rightly say that God actually arranges for something which might offend and certainly contradicts our expectations. Jesus is born to the wrong person in the wrong place. That is God’s decision not ours and it should challenge us.

What we have so often done is to romanticise the scene and turn it into something pretty, we have lost the raw meaning of the event, which is rude and perhaps offends us. Of course that is the whole point, the nativity is all about the fact that Gods ways to us are incongruous. God chooses to behave in this way contradictory way and in so doing shows that his authority and power are quite unlike anything which meets our expectations.

The very ordinary nature of the birth of Jesus was a challenge to people of the time as well as us. It was all so very unremarkable. We might imagine that events would have been marked clearly and have been so obvious to everybody, but actually they were not, they were all too ordinary and very unremarkable.

I wonder if you like me have gone outside to look at the night sky following the exhortations of astronomers to look at a spectacular event, the like of which will never be seen for another 1,00 years. I usually go out look into the sky, yawn and immediately go back inside. If you have the eyes to know what you are looking for it might all make sense, but apart from a total eclipse these events are usually quite unspectacular.

I would suggest that if you and I were there that night, we would not have heard choirs of angels singing. We would not have recognised a star in the sky perched directly over a stable, as it is so commonly portrayed on our Christmas cards.

Very few people saw and heard and understood what took place that night. The choirs of angels singing were drowned out by the haggling and trading going on in the Jerusalem bazaar. There was perhaps an unusually bright star in the sky, but not so brilliantly obvious that Herod, his royal advisors and soldiers were able to follow it.

If anyone did see Mary and Joseph on that most fateful night, they were seemingly too preoccupied with their own problems to offer any assistance.

A few people knew that something unusual was taking place, they were divided into two groups. There were those who were able to appreciate that something wonderful was going on, these people had the eyes of faith and were able to see past the ordinary and recognise the extra ordinary presence of God. People like the pagan astrologers from the East.

Then of course there was Herod, who knew that something special was about to happen, but who perceived Jesus to be a threat.

Se we come to us. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas we gather tonight because we recognise that there is something special about Jesus. This is not an ordinary child born to an ordinary girl, this is God at work, behind the scenes. Few people today would want to kill the baby Jesus, but most people will simply not understand the significance of the birth of the baby at all.

We are called this Christmas to be a part of those who have recognised Jesus for who he really is, just like the first visitors to his cradle. We are drawn into worship, as we take the bread and wine our hands provide a cradle for him as surely as we prepare a space for him in our lives.

Text image: Christmas - poem by John Betjeman

The Poem Christmas by John Betjeman is interesting. It speaks of all of the things of Christmas, the decorations, the stuff of merry Christmas and all of those people who celebrate it, then it asks the big question

And is it true? and is it true? 
The most tremendous tale of all, 
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue, 
A Baby in an ox's stall? 
The Maker of the stars and sea 
Become a Child on earth for me?

If it is true then the response from us must be proportionate to the event and our Christmas celebrations never compare with the magnitude of God’s expression of love to us. Betjeman said it like this

No love that in a family dwells, 
No carolling in frosty air, 
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells 
Can with this single Truth compare - 
That God was Man in Palestine 
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

Decoration

 

Additional Material

The Poem

 

The bells of waiting Advent ring, 
The Tortoise stove is lit again 
And lamp-oil light across the night 
Has caught the streaks of winter rain. 
In many a stained-glass window sheen 
From Crimson Lake to Hooker's Green.

The holly in the windy hedge 
And round the Manor House the yew 
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge, 
The altar, font and arch and pew, 
So that villagers can say 
'The Church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze 
And Corporation tramcars clang, 
On lighted tenements I gaze 
Where paper decorations hang, 
And bunting in the red Town Hall 
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'

And London shops on Christmas Eve 
Are strung with silver bells and flowers 
As hurrying clerks the City leave 
To pigeon-haunted classic towers, 
And marbled clouds go scudding by 
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad, 
And oafish louts remember Mum, 
And sleepless children's hearts are glad, 
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!' 
Even to shining ones who dwell 
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? and is it true? 
The most tremendous tale of all, 
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall? 
The Maker of the stars and sea 
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is, 
No loving fingers tying strings 
Around those tissued fripperies, 
The sweet and silly Christmas things, 
Bath salts and inexpensive scent 
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells, 
No carolling in frosty air, 
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells 
Can with this single Truth compare - 
That God was Man in Palestine 
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

 

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