Christmas Day readings

16 December 2009

by Martin Warner

Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14

I THINK it is Disney that has done it for me, this Christmas. Its glitzy launch of A Christmas Carol raised serious questions about our priorities.

The launch was part of London’s switching on of the Christmas lights. It celebrated the secular gospel of consumerism with all the dangers of greed and damage to self-esteem which that can hold for adults and children alike. But the voice of Charles Dickens, articulated by Jim Carrey, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, stood out like a prophetic statement of godly sanity.

Mr Carrey invited us to enjoy the film, but also to remember the warning that lies at the heart of it — a warning about greed, and its corrosive effects on human relationships. As the lights of Oxford Street and Regent Street twinkled invitingly around us, Mr Carrey reminded us that the corollary to our greed is global poverty. Scrooge’s change of heart was not simply a detail in a Disney production. It was also a statement about lifestyle that is summed up by everything Christmas really means.

Scrooge’s dream-world reveals the truth about himself. He is confronted by the disturbing image of what others see when they look at him, and he finds it unbearably painful. What he sees is a person contorted by the agony of selfishness, and all the painful loneliness that that entails, and he sees the impact of this on the lives of others.

Vision is one of the themes of our celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. More precisely, it is the vision of what we see when we look into the crib. As angels tell shepherds, the manger is where we see the sign of what good news of great joy — of peace on earth — looks like. When, like the shepherds, we go in search of God, who is in the act of revealing our salvation, we see ourselves, but in a new light. We see ourselves as we are called to be, the perfect likeness of God in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word in whom dwells all the glory of God, hidden yet real within our mortal flesh.

This image is not merely a sentimental one about the innocence of a newborn child: it is also about a wholly different set of relationships. The sight of this child invites us to explore what it might be like to live in a world that prizes vulnerability above defensiveness; that suffers, loves, and understands in order to heal and liberate; and that finds joyful plenty in poverty that is freely chosen. This is the world of heaven, where what you are and how you live cannot but enrich your life and identity. This takes some imagining when the present world is all you have known.

The Church’s imagining of Christmas, through its carols and crib, the nativity play, and the drama of the midnight liturgy, is a rich stimulus to our spiritual imagination. It invites us to resist the “gospel” of consumerism and greed, and to live differently in the light of the crib’s new vision of ourselves as we might be, not simply as we have become.

Although it comes from an overtly commercial stable, Disney’s example of transformation in A Christmas Carol can also encourage us. It can help us to imagine how we might live differently, as human beings in whom the image of Jesus Christ is authentically seen. But the Christmas invitation extends further than this.

One of the exciting things about the world of Disney is the way it treats the non-human parts of creation. It is absolutely not unusual for animals, birds, and fish to talk. Here, again, the reference might appear trivial, but it does have serious intent. The birth in time of the eternal Word, by whom all creation was brought into existence, is a signal of the redemption that God wills for all that exists. This birth brings liberation to creation itself. It is an event that is about more than just us as human beings. Nor is this a novel perception, pandering to the tastes of sentimental film-lovers.

In the ancient Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, near Oxford, there is a 20th-century nativity window designed by John Piper. At the top a cockerel cries: “Christus natus est!”, Christ is born! Below, a goose replies: “Quando? Quando?”, When? When? “In hac nocte”, This very night, calls out a crow. “Ubi? Ubi?”, Where? Where? hoots the owl. “Bethlem! Bethlem!”, bleats a lamb. At the bottom of the window these words are quoted: “Let Man and beast appear before Him and magnify His name together. . .”  

The window was inspired by this quotation from Christopher Smart’s 18th-century poem, “Rejoice in the Lamb”, perhaps best known for being set to music by Benjamin Britten. Here, if you will, sentimentality is hallowed by theological insight, as might our childlike delight in Disney’s fantastical imagination be similarly hallowed. We should let all such things issue in praise that is worthy of the angels on Christmas night. With them, let us also rejoice, as wisdom leaps down from heaven to call the whole creation back to the delight of its first making.

Isaiah 9.2-7
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

Titus 2.11-14
The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Luke 2.1-14(15-20)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

There were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Canon Warner is Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bishop- designate of Whitby.

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