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Readings: Christmas Day

19 December 2014



Isaiah 9.2-7; Ps. 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]

Midnight celebration

Eternal God, who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of your one true light: bring us, who have known the revelation of that light on earth, to see the radiance of your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Other celebrations 

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 your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

DESPITE secular pressure, the nativity play is a stalwart survivor in a Western world that has lost so many enacted community rituals. Cynics might say that its resilience testified principally to churches' desire to find ways of involving people, and particularly of giving children something exciting to do. Yet that does not seem an adequate reason for the energy and devotion that go into costume-making and rehearsals year after year. They seem to belong much more persuasively to a longing, not only to enter into the action, but to reinterpret it, so that it lives again for those who take part and also for those who are both outsiders, as the audience, and insiders, as they join in the carols that flow through the drama.

Nor do we need self-consciously avant-garde touches or aggressive updating to convey the message. Sometimes the greatest illumination comes through the mistakes, the forgotten lines, the timing faults, and the improvisations that threaten the perfection of any amateur production.

The parish church in South Africa in which I appeared for several Christmases as a supernumerary angel still, years later, involves the children of its Sunday school in performing the nativity. After one recent rendition, my mother described the unusual costume of a small shepherd, whose regulation striped dressing gown and tea towel were enhanced by a pair of gauzy wings. She, with the benefit of long experience, suspected some altercation backstage. But the audience may have found themselves wondering, as the characters in the story of Jesus's birth continually find themselves doing, what this strange thing might mean. Asking the question in the light of Luke's narrative offers one answer: here was a shepherd who, having seen the glory of the angels, was not going to leave it behind when he went to greet the Messiah.

And it is glory, perhaps still shining on their faces, that the Lucan shepherds present to Mary and Joseph and the infant. The sense of wonder and joy is made more powerful because it momentarily occupies a complete silence: they do not speak until they are quite sure that what they see in front of them is what the angels have predicted. Then the overwhelming news tumbles out, amazing all present, but also finding its own wondering silence in Mary's heart (Luke 2.15-19).

Luke arranges the historical circumstances surrounding Jesus's birth to point irrefutably towards the fulfilment of Micah's prophecy of a ruler who would rise up from Bethlehem (Luke 2.4; Micah 5.2-5). Scholarship has challenged the identification of officials (Luke 2.1-4) on chronological grounds, but Bethlehem has held its own. As the rest of this Gospel will show, however, this fulfilment is both already and not yet. The only way to follow Jesus's life as it unfolds into a ministry of teaching, healing, and fearless challenge to time-serving authority is to know from the outset that this is God the Saviour. The only way for Mary to discover what the shepherds' message means is to stand by her son as he lives and grows, and as he dies.

In different circumstances, Isaiah held out to an audience living under Assyrian domination the promise of a king who would return to David's throne to rule for ever. He tells the future in the present tense (Isaiah 9.2-6), reminding his hearers how God stood by a small army under Gideon's command as they defeated the Midianites (Judges 7.15-25). In the evocative rhythm of marching feet achieved by the translators of the RSV and adopted in the NRSV, he paints the picture of a time of "endless peace" (Isaiah 9.7), when "all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire" (Isaiah 9.5).

This year, that picture is more vivid than ever, as the centenary of the outbreak and advance of the First World War imprints itself on the national consciousness. Opportunistic supermarket advertising has not in any way diminished the wonder of the Christmas Truce in which that vision of peace was briefly realised; and a growing online letter archive preserves the memory of the war in the ordinary and domestic prose of soldiers writing home (www.christmastruce.co.uk/hertfordshire.html). They had glimpsed - for the most part unconsciously - the grace that brings salvation to all (Titus 2.11). It continues to encourage us as we wait for hope and the glory that are to come (Titus 2.13).

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely, and a Visiting Scholar of Sarum College.

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