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Readings: First Sunday of Christmas

13 December 2013

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Isaiah 63.7-9; Hebrews 2.10-end; Matthew 2.13-end

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A wise and yet demanding juxtaposition of readings plunges us, four days after Christmas songs of heavenly bliss, into the violence of the world into which the Son of God was born. There can be no cocoon that isolates Christmas from the harsh realities of daily life.

After two millennia, the massacre in Bethlehem is all too familiar in its horror. The Oxford Research Group reported last month that more than 1000 children had been deliberately killed in Syria, and, shockingly, that 112 - including infants - were first tortured.

That same week, The Guardian quoted a father in the Central African Republic: "They started to attack my [four-year-old] son. They tried to shoot him, but the gun was not working. So they slit his throat instead. What threat does this child pose?"

This is the world in which we hear this Sunday's readings. If Matthew tells the story, Hebrews gives a theological commentary: God has made the pioneer of our salvation perfect through suffering, which began almost immediately; the Son, through whom God speaks to us, was in danger as a toddler, and Joseph did not wait for farewells before becoming a refugee.

It is likely that Joseph and Mary settled with the Jewish community in Egypt. Coptic Christians in Egypt are proud that their country offered sanctuary to the Son of God; that the place of slavery and deliverance became the place of sanctuary and deliverance. The incarnation took place in the context of fear for survival - fear that Joseph and Mary continued to feel even back in Nazareth.

Again, Hebrews and Isaiah provide theological insights into this very human story: these were people living with the fear of death, who were being tested, and who therefore were the recipients of God's mercy, steadfast love, and help - however fragile their existence might have felt at the time.

No messenger or angel would do: in his love and pity, God redeemed his people, and carried them all the days of old. Through his ultimate death, the Son destroyed the one who had the power of death. His was a cosmic battle.

In the collect, we pray that, as Jesus Christ came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity. A world of theology lies behind this prayer, which we pray this Sunday through the lens of the vulnerability of a young child to violence and massacre. No one can accuse God of ignoring the cruelty and suffering of the world, so, if we share his life, we cannot ignore what God embraces in his love and pity.

Our problem is that, faced with such horrors, paralysis sets in, and we can feel powerless to do anything. Where do we start? When that happens, we have Joseph's example of doing what he could, when God asked him to act, and we can go back to the words that we heard at the beginning of Advent: "Let us walk in the light of the Lord" (Isaiah 2.5). Our response begins with the next step, however, small that might be. When we walk, we keep one foot on the ground of our sorrowful world.

At Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, six candles, representing the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, are reflected hundreds of times in mirrors. My response to seeing this was a hymn-prayer:

Rachel's voice from Ramah, weeping
as the little children die,
still across the land is sweeping
in the parents' anguished cry.

Jesus, you sought consolation
as you faced the awful cross,
and your cry of desolation
shouts the terror of its loss.

Light a candle in the darkness,
multiply its flickering light,
let it speak in solemn starkness
through the dark of evil's night. 

Still today the children's crying,
unwiped tears and broken hearts,
ask of us much more than sighing,
plead for justice grace imparts. 

So the cries of lamentation,
Rachel's weeping down the years,
meet, in us, God's inclination
to redeem the mothers' tears.

Light a candle in the darkness,
Multiply its flickering light,
Let it speak in simple starkness
Of new hope born in the night.

On Christmas Day, we heard that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. If we believe that, we can dare to light candles in the darkness of our world.

Hymn: © 1996 Rosalind Brown

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