Luke Ch.2 v.46-56
We’ve heard or told the birth story many times – presented it in various scenarios, often sentimentalised it so that it is a mere story divorced from fact, we have hidden it in a mass of indulgent customs or claimed it as the church’s possession, we can be sceptical of all other celebrations. We wade through the hyped up Christmas shopping spree in town. We sing ourselves hoarse with carols, pretend for a moment that the world is not in financial crises, survive exhaustive Christmas preparations and have remarkable family celebrations.
So much piled upon so little, and yet it’s the little that matters.
Whatever we do to it, the once-upon-a time story is timeless and its a time for honesty.
Despite all the flummery, the repetition and the misrepresentation, the story survives. There’s something pure and direct about it that defies all the ceremonies and celebrations we have woven around the event, so that even the most under rehearsed and halting nativity play can be the vehicle reminding us of that small unpromising beginning. The woman heavily pregnant, journeying to register for a tax system that disfavours the poor, accompanied by a man to whom she is not married, sustained by this angelic rumour that she is to be the mother of the Coming One, whom the people have been longing and praying for, the baby is born in the outhouse of a pub.
Mary’s homely excitement is reflected in Martin Luther’s hymn –
‘To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This new born babe of lowly birth
Shall be the joy of all the earth’
Luke’s account of the shock and excitement of two women – the elderly Elizabeth and the young Mary favoured by God, pregnant with boys who were to change history. Mary’s cry of wonder and commitment quickly became one of the very oldest hymns, regularly used in the worship of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant worship. The ‘Magnificat’ is less about Jesus but more about the amazement of his mother to be – that she (of all people) should be chosen. A little of how it is for us, that we too should be noticed.
Jesus is a mystery to us, but we are held to his story by our fascination in his very unpredictability and many of us are devoted to him as an example – a presence – which enables us to assess and improve our lives.
It is as an enabler that he continues to attract people who want to believe in the value of life and in their own value. Believing in him becomes a way of believing in ourselves. He is Way, Truth, Life. We take up the invitation first given to his disciples, we too ‘follow’ him. Mary’s wonder and joy is part of the meaning of Christmas for us.
There is for a disciple a proper dependence on the way of life to which we are called. Put simply, we need Jesus. But the danger is that we imagine that only by demoting ourselves can we promote the stature of Jesus. There’s a lot of that in the liturgies we inherit – as if we have to run ourselves down in order to exalt God. Not much fun for him to hear us continually telling him what a rotten lot we are. A little less confession and a bit more commitment to action would not be a bad thing in our worship.
But there is another reference in the Magnificat. Here are words of comfort and strength to those who know their need and weakness. This story of a man entering and changing human history is about enabling the disabled and bringing power to those for whom weakness and powerlessness is their way of life. But Jesus is also a prophet to the powerful and a disabler to those who in their pride regard themselves to be very able indeed. Mary sees the steel in the angelic promise –
‘He has shown the might of his arm
He has brought down monarchs from their thrones and raised on high the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich empty away’
It sounds familiar – the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, monarchs dethroned; power devoted to a good purpose. The clever and the strong and the powerful may think the Jesus story only makes sense to the simple and the small and the broken people of the world. The powerful – the politicians, the corporate financiers, the manipulators of public opinion, the violators of privacy, the hidden rulers of the world are in fact accountable : to the poor of the earth and to he earth’s Creator.
There are those who say that Christianity has nothing to say about the way the world is organised, nothing to say about politics. Some Christians say that. Quite a lot of politicians agree – ‘say your prayers and we will make the decisions’. Both groups of people have never met the living tradition of old testament prophecy; they haven’t read the new testament against the political ferment of the days in which Jesus lived and which was responsible for his death. They haven’t recognised the passion of Jesus in prayer and action for the rule of God, have ignored the sort of friends he made, the people with whom he felt at home and those conversely who angered him.
The international Occupy movement is more than an acted parable of how things should be. It can also be seen as a prophetic statement about the Incarnation. Christian Prophecy is about asserting the moral base of human life. Jesus bids us welcome to his new rule but also confronts us with the world’s misrule. I am very much moved by the objectives of the Sabeel movement which intercedes in prayer and protest for Palestinians in Israel. Its director, Naim Ateek in his Christmas message writes ‘As the company of angels joined the first messenger and gave glory to God, they emphasized the gift of peace and goodwill. The only possibility for peace and goodwill is through work for justice; work that moves the world in a direction away from empire, away from war, and toward God’s vision of peace and reconciliation.’
The coming of Christ is good news for the oppressed but bad news for the oppressor; soft words for the broken, and hard words for the powerful.. and homes for the homeless, care for the disabled, health for the sick, respect for the poor, work for the unemployed, freedom for the oppressed and judgement for those for whom social justice is of little concern. The coming of Christ is not a cosy myth to warm our winters, but a clear statement that all Authority in this world is accountable to God.
‘Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us for ever,
Now thy glorious kingdom bring.’ (Charles Wesley)
‘Happy Christmas’? Of course. But an honest one as well?