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Readings: Christmas day

13 December 2013


Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4 [5-12]; John 1.1-14

Almighty God, you have given us your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

UNLIKE Matthew's and Luke's versions, John's Gospel does not begin with narrative stories of Nazareth and Bethlehem told from human perspectives, but sets a theological context - what we might say is God's-eye view.

We hear John's words this Christmas alongside Isaiah's affirmation to the exiled people that God reigns, that God is a God of salvation and comfort; and alongside the bold assertion in the epistle that God has spoken to us through his Son, through whom he created the world.

Hebrews opens, like John's Gospel, with its gaze firmly on heavenly things. So it emphasises the divinity of the Son; that he sits at the right hand of the majesty on high; that he is God enthroned for ever and ever. Taken on its own, this reading suggests little need for this heavenly way of life to engage with the world. In one sense, it appears self-sufficient.

Except, and this is the big exception: "In these last days God has spoken to us through a Son." That changes everything. That is why we celebrate Christmas. There is an impulse in the Godhead to embrace the world in love, despite human rejection of God's previous reaching out through the prophets.

A Hasidic tale explores this theme:

The grandson of Rabbi Baruch, Yechiel, was playing hide and seek with a friend. He hid and waited for his friend to search for him. After some time, during which nothing happened, he came out of his hiding place, and could not find his friend. It dawned on him that his friend had not bothered to look for him. Distraught, he ran to his grandfather, sobbing about his heartless friend. Rabbi Baruch wept, too, as he said: "O, Yechiel. That's exactly what the Almighty Himself says: 'I hide myself, but nobody wants to look for me.'"

The whole point of hide and seek is that we are found. Christmas is the moment when we celebrate the mutual joy, with God, that God has looked for us; and we are found through the incarnation of the Son.

Jaroslav Vajda, one of the great hymn-writers of recent years, wrote a lovely, imaginative hymn ("Before the marvel of this night") which explores, poetically, God's motivation in sharing the bliss of heaven with the sleeping world of earth.

Vajda imagines God's giving the angels their marching (flying?) orders to go to the shepherds, telling them to "tear the sky apart with light", and, evocatively, to

Give earth a glimpse of heavenly bliss,
A teasing taste of what they miss:
Sing bliss, sing endless bliss.

Vajda ends his hymn by putting these words on to God's lips:

The love that we have always known,
Our constant joy and endless light,
Now to the loveless world be shown,
Now break upon its deathly night.
Into one song compress the love
That rules our universe above.
Sing love . . . sing God is love.

"Into one song compress the love that rules our universe above." Christmas is divine love compressed into a song that humans can hear - a story that humans can tell and retell, as we do Christmas by Christmas.

Each year, we hear that "teasing taste of what we miss", when we hear that the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory; that to all who received him he gave power to become children of God.

Another hymn-writer, Samuel Crossman, sang of "love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be". Love - strong and passionate and tender love - is what God speaks to us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

There is no reason for the joy and hope of Christmas to be a one-night wonder. Christmas is the love of God compressed into one song, and, with that love, comes an invitation to sing it for the rest of our lives, in a tragically loveless world, that it might lovely be.

The Word dwells among us. In the post-communion prayer, we pray: "may the light of faith illumine our hearts and shine in our words and deeds". Only then will people in the Philippines and other places of tragedy in 2013 know that the Word of God dwells with them.

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