by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight and Chair of One Body One Faith
I wonder how you feel about Christmas? Is it something you look forward to with childlike delight and share with family and friends? Or is it something you dread bitterly, and which seems to bring heartache or reinforce loneliness and bad past experiences?
Do you enjoy giving and receiving presents or is the pressure to get exactly the right gift simply too much? What is the very worst gift you have ever received? For me it was a rotating spice rack. Seriously, who buys someone that for Christmas? I was dating the person concerned at the time. The relationship ended shortly into the New Year…
What about the very best gifts you have been given? For me it tends to be the ones which have lasting impact. For example, the watch which was given to me by my partner Mark on our first Christmas together some 12 years ago now which means I think about him whenever I check the time. Or the writing course my daughter gave me which has improved my content and style (although after reading this perhaps you had better be the judge of that!).
Take a moment and think back over the past year. How has your life changed since last Christmas? Regardless of what the last year has been for us and whether we consider the changes to be for better or for worse here we are again considering the Christmas story.
I am not talking about the Christmas story that starts out “In those days” and takes place “in that region.” I am talking about the here and now Christmas story, the one that is taking place in these days and in this region. After all, that’s really the only Christmas story that matters. What good is it to us if Jesus is laid in a manger in Bethlehem but has no impact on how we live our lives today?
Every year we hear the Christmas story, it never changes. The same story with the same characters, the same locations, the same plot, and the same ending. Mary and Joseph are pregnant and unmarried. Emperor Augustus issues a decree of taxation. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem. There’s no room at the inn. Mary gives birth to Jesus and places him in a manger. The angel announces this good news to the shepherds. They come and see this thing that has happened. Mary treasures and ponders the words of the shepherds and they return to their fields.
You know that story as well as I do. You’ve probably heard it and told it multiple times.
But have we ever really considered the fact that it is about a gift which keeps on giving? It is why I am a Christian, this story is what makes it possible for me to believe. In this story God is not some remote old man with a grey beard sitting on a cloud looking down disapprovingly at me. This story tells me that God is a human baby with all the vulnerability and trauma and joy and love that brings. I can worship God because in the person of Jesus Christ God knows what it is like to be me. God isn’t remote or distant but is absolutely here and now. In Jesus Christ God knows the pain and suffering, the joy and love, of being human.
The Christmas story is just a part of a much bigger story. So, here is a spoiler alert – I am about to tell you what happens….
Jesus grows up!
As he does so he experiences the best and worst of humanity:
- He knows what it is like to be a child and an adolescent, to be told off and to learn and develop.
- Jesus knows what it is to learn a trade and to work hard – he was a carpenter like his father Joseph.
- Jesus knows what it is like to lose a parent and be bereaved. Joseph died before Jesus was 30.
- Jesus knows what it is to love family and be part of a community and also what it was to flee and be a refugee.
- Jesus know what it is to party – he turned water into wine at a wedding.
- Jesus knows pain and bereavement – he cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus.
- Jesus knows anger – he turned over tables in the temples.
- Jesus knows what it is to learn from others and change his mind – a women convinced him to help her when he first refused.
- Jesus knows the love and support of friends – he gathered twelve close friends around him to help him with his mission.
- Jesus lived in a time of occupation and political turmoil – with our recent general election, President Trump and the political turmoil of our world it seems not much has changed.
- Jesus knows what it is to be betrayed – by several of his close friends.
- Jesus also knows what it is to suffer physical and mental pain and to feel abandoned by God.
- Jesus knows fear, despair and what death is like.
God in Jesus knows what it is like to be me. And in Jesus we see what it is like for us to be fully human. To live with hope and love. To battle against despair and the darkness and turmoil of the world around us. But perhaps the biggest spoiler of all is that it turns out death is not the end – Jesus comes back, Jesus defeats death and gives us all the ultimate hope.
Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus, is the gift which keeps on giving. It is happening in whatever the circumstances of your life might be today. Christmas is happening in whatever changes you’ve experienced over the last year. Christmas is as real and present in the difficult and painful times of life as it is in the joyful and exciting times. Christmas happens today and tomorrow and throughout the year whether we are aware of it or not.
Wizzard sang ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’ – well if Christmas is about Emmanuel, God with us then it is Christmas every single moment of every single day.