‘O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!’
I wonder what picture was in your mind as you sang this well loved carol, what image was conjured up for you. Was it of a nativity play you have been to this year where children re-enacted the Christmas story and parents and grandparents were full of pride – and perhaps some anxiety – as they watched their little ones? Or was it the tableau members of our community created at Carols in the Barn on Sunday? Perhaps it was the image from an Old Master painting that you saw: a stable with a serene Mary and a proud Joseph standing guard over the precious baby lying asleep on his bed of hay. Or was it something more German Gothic in style, influenced by the Advent Calendars and nativity sets many of us will have at home? Or perhaps you were looking at our lovely nativity set displayed here on the organ.
These images are important and contain much truth, but they only hold part of the truth of the story we are celebrating tonight. Mary and Joseph were there; Jesus was born and laid in a manger; there were angels and unexpected guests, but it was probably all rather more noisy and messy and smelly and emotional than we imagine…births usually are. We are so familiar with the images of the Nativity that we can forget quite how earth-shattering the events of that first Christmas really were. With our family traditions and childhood memories of Christmas as it used to be all shaped by a good dose of Dickens, we have in many ways tamed the story of Christmas, we have domesticated it, made it child-friendly and forgotten that it there was little that was cosy about the events of Jesus’ birth. We have forgotten that it was the night when God was born. It was the night when God came and dwelt amongst us.
In reality, Bethlehem probably wasn’t that still on the evening Jesus was born. It was a town under Roman occupation and packed with visitors returning home for the census. The town was so full of people that Mary and Joseph struggled to find somewhere to stay. Bethlehem is certainly unlikely to be still tonight. Sadly, it was too unsettled whilst I was in Israel for me visit this time, so I was unable to do as Philips Brooks, the writer of the carol did on Christmas Eve 1865 and make the journey there. The celebrations planned for Manger Square this year are low key because of the current wave of violence which has been affecting the land of Jesus’ birth since September. The troubles of the Holy Land often give rise to violence and Bethlehem is more likely to make the news today for death and hatred than for life and peace. The darkness that made Jesus’ birth necessary continues to afflict human hearts today: hatred and injustice; pain and suffering; fear and death. We have just sung of this ‘world of sin’: the carol reminds us that the darkness extends far beyond Bethlehem and the Middle East into our lives too. Yet as John reminds us, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
Glimpses of ‘the everlasting Light’ which shone in Bethlehem when Jesus was born are to be found there tonight in the hearts and lives of those who believe in him. People are working there to bring that peace of which the angels sang. This peace is not just an absence of war and fighting, though the earth is crying out for that this Christmastime and we are called to pray for an end to violence in the Holy Land. This peace is the peace which God alone can give. The peace that comes with reconciliation between people and God, and people and their neighbours, and people and themselves. This is the peace which ‘God imparts to human hearts’. This is the peace which organisations such as Bethlehem Bible College and Musalaha are working towards. The Bible College seeks to train Christian leaders to support the local church and community; they are working to reverse the current exodus which if unchecked will see an end to Palestinian Christians living in the Holy Land before long. Musalaha (which comes from the Arabic word for reconciliation) has brought Israelis and Palestinians together for over two decades. It promotes reconciliation as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
This gift of ‘peace to all on earth’ is the reason that we celebrate Christmas. This peace is the reason why the nativity story matters. This peace is why the story of Christmas is not like King Alfred burning the cakes or Sir Francis Drake playing bowls whilst the Armada approached, enjoyable and familiar stories from the past which have little more than entertainment value today. We view the nativity story in the same way at our peril for the birth of the Christ-child is the event on which history hinges. The history of the world and God’s dealings with it. It is not just a comforting story for children but something altogether more powerful and unsettling. The birth of Jesus is the point when ‘The hopes and fears of all the years’ came together, met in one place, in one person and found their resolution, their fulfilment, their redemption. It is the story of salvation for the whole world.
All babies are precious and all babies bring transformation to the lives of those who love them but this baby’s birth is so life-changing that it has an impact even on how we mark time. There is a before and an after. Our Gospel reading tells us why, for this child is nothing less that God himself. Whilst Matthew and Luke list Jesus’ human ancestors at the beginning of their gospels, John gives us Jesus’ divine genealogy: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ (John 1.1) The child whose birth was proclaimed by the ‘morning stars’ was Immanuel, God with us.
The poet UA Fanthorpe used to write a poem to put in her Christmas card each year. One of my favourites is called BC:AD and it captures this sense of something profoundly important in the midst of the Christmas story.
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
The Christmas story offers us the same invitation that was given to the people of Judea over 2,000 years ago: we too are invited to receive Christ into our lives. It is an invitation that requires an RSVP: will we receive Christ or won’t we? Will we be like Herod and reject Jesus or will we be like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men and believe in his name? Will we close our ears to the songs of the angels or will we recognise Jesus as our Lord and King? If we say yes, Jesus’ birth, life and death enable us to become children of God. If we say yes, we too can
‘Walk haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
[This is the sermon I preached at the First Communion of Christmas.]
Revd Rebecca Fardell