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Christmas Day

19 December 2022

Isaiah 62.6-end; Psalm 97; Titus 3.4-7; Luke 2.[1-7] 8-20

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BECAUSE the message of the Christmas readings does not change, I have chosen the shortest possible distillation of them. First, from the Old Testament and epistle, us as we really are, and as Christ sees us, and as God would have us be: “Sought out. Not forsaken [Isaiah]. Saved [Titus].”

There is no longer any need to travel in search of God, like Mary and Joseph, or the Magi. God has travelled to us, and sought us out. We do not have to forsake all hope for ourselves and others, because God has not forsaken us. We may be sinking in a slough of despond, or beaten down by countless troubles, but, in God’s eternal perspective, we are “saved” — or, to translate it slightly differently, we are “safe”. No lasting harm can come to us.

Then we have six words (just one in Greek) from the Gospel: “I am bringing you good news” (Luke). This comes in a form that we can easily grasp: the Christmas experience, Christian-style. John 1.1-14 is sublime; but, with Luke and Matthew, and their stories of journeys and get-togethers, we can feel at home.

Together, these scripture fragments constitute a powerful Christmas message. The angel’s words are good news for everyone. Racial identity and religious belief become irrelevant with the revelation that God’s love for humankind is universal. If this is heresy — because God loves only Christians, while the rest of the world can burn — well, call me a heretic.

Outside the Church, though, content creators and the media have Christmas schedules and pages to fill, and (to be fair) stereotypes to challenge. This can feel like a chipping away at our ideal imaginings until angelic glory loses its gleam, and peace and goodwill sound more like pie-in-the-sky.

One example of this is the traditional Christmas story (caution: names and details may change from year to year) of the over-sharing parish priest. The priest tells the real story of Christmas by debunking “mythical” Gospel stories of Jesus’s birth — preferably in front of the kiddies, straight after the school nativity play . . . and with plenty of parents within earshot, ready to be disgusted.

Reader, I was nearly that parish priest once when, at one midnight mass, assuming the church to be empty of under-tens, I declared from the pulpit, “I don’t believe in Father Christmas.” The guilt is with me still.

We need to keep the joy and the calling of Christmas woven together, as those scripture fragments do; not least because it is always a tough time for some — unsurprisingly, when you think how much of our happiness is invested in it. And, this year, more families than ever will be struggling.

One constructive exercise for when pressures and expectations are getting to us is to write a list of blessings. It may start slowly. As we write the list in two columns (one “positive” and the other “negative”), the negatives come quickly and plentifully to mind. To balance this, we need to take time, pause, and think, so that gradually we recognise more of what is good in our lives. It helps if we can reflect on what makes the good things good. After all, it is human nature that the things that make us most comfortable and secure tend to become invisible, so that we take them for granted.

When we become Christians, we learn about the beatific vision, our ultimate perfecting in God’s nearer presence. But we still have to go on in the human reality of hardships, doubts, and difficulties in which we spend our earthly days. At Christmas, the divide between Christian truth and secular festivity seems stark.

We can bridge the gulf by bringing that festivity into our worship. On the whole, we are good at this: at Christmas, occasional worshippers experience church at its most uplifting and least naggy. We are not so good at bringing the solemn joy of the angelic “good news” into secular Winterval. Perhaps our faith perspective comes across as judgemental.

Creating our list may help if we are under pressure in the festive season. But, if there is a concrete stumbling-block in the way of our happiness (domestic violence, addiction, abuse, debt, dying relationships), no list of blessings will magic it away. So, we should add a third column: things that we are going to face up to, once the food and gifts and decorations are cleared away.

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