Christmas Day 2013
Sermon preached by the
Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
‘The Word became flesh and lived among us …’ John 1.14
Since childhood I’ve had a fascination with snow globes: those glass ornaments – sometimes plastic – with their encased, idyllic Christmas scenes. When you invert them the snow swirls and eventually settles. This year, for the first time, I had an online Advent calendar – a computerised snow globe devised by a web-hosted greeting cards company.
Each day I clicked the globe, and the snow swirled around a Downton Abbey type stately home. Daily clicks on baubles in the gardens revealed an animated Edwardian, pre-first World War, Christmas idyll: robins and deer, and the perfect dusting of snow. Clean, rustic children from the nearby village sit on the fence and wave at a passing steam train that brings wealthy guests to the Manor House. Holly has plentiful berries. Peacocks strut their stuff. There’s ice-skating on the conveniently frozen ornamental lake. The servants are downstairs preparing hearty, traditional Mrs Beeton style recipes; except when they’re upstairs preparing Christmas for the family.
My online Advent world was interactive. I could open books in the library and play games at side tables in the window. There was a day of flower arranging, wreath making, and even an opportunity to try online cross-stitch. The dining room looks scarily similar to that across the road at The Palace. It was a fun, captivating world where everything could pretend to be light and life.
My Advent snow globe calendar spoke to me of the many layers, the glosses, the accretions, that have been heaped generation-by-generation, tradition-by-tradition, especially since Victorian times, on our Christmas celebrations. And to these almost universal customs and images we each add our own family Christmas practices: spiced beef, Hadji Bey Turkish delight, and chocolate brazil nuts feature in our house.
Layer upon layer – like those mille feuille (thousands of leaves) French pastries – Christmas has become what it is today; or rather what we think it is.
When you think that at the start of the 19th Century, Christmas was hardly celebrated at all. The Victorians changed all that with cards, trees, turkey, bon-bons, and crackers. It was they who were responsible for the revival and popularisation of Christmas carols. Even the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, now central to our Christmas, is relatively recent!
The room, which is now my study on the top floor of the Palace had been long-abandoned generations before we arrived. Layers and layers of wallpaper hung from the walls – about five layers. Stripping it back was revealing.
When we strip back the layers and layers of traditions, and customs of our Christmas celebrations, what do we find? Well, we find two very different Gospel accounts – Matthew and Luke – telling of the birth of Jesus. Those Gospel accounts themselves have layers of meaning and of context, written for very different groups of early believers. That should come as no surprise, they were written many decades after the events they describe. St Paul’s letters had already been written with his interpretation of what had happened. And the purpose of the two very different birth stories is not to tell us what happened, but to tell us what it all means.
Supremely, this is the purpose of St John in the Gospel we have just heard. St John, writing more than 100 years after the event, strips it back more, in search of the meaning. John wants us to be among those ‘… who receive him, who believe him, and who are, therefore, given power to become children of God…’
Supremely, John’s is the Christmas Gospel, the crowning moment of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the one that resonates in the ears of Christians, Christmas after Christmas: The Incarnation of the Word of God. The whole point of his writing is to show us that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son and to persuade us to receive and to believe. One hundred years after the birth of Jesus, the story naturally had already acquired layers. Like the other gospels, it was certainly being seen through the prism of the accounts of the execution of Jesus, and the resurrection appearances, the spread of the early Church and the encounter of believers with their inherited faith – Judaism, and the wider world, including Greek philosophy.
In the terms and images of the Greek philosophy in which John was harnessing and which would have been familiar to the community he was writing to, the Word was the starting point of all things; the self-expression of God – Jesus himself.
In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.
What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
… to all who received him he gave power to become children of God…
The Word became flesh, and lived among us …
The Word – God – became flesh – entered our physical, messy and stripped bare world. It’s not only the Gospels from which the Christmas layers of traditions need to be stripped back. Christmas celebrations are , in any case, we know deep down, a gloss on our own multi-layered and complex lives. For many the layers of Christmas celebration have few layers of joy at all. Seasonal celebrations are no respecter of tough times in peoples’ lives. An illness, an empty place at the family table through emigration or bereavement, the unpredictability of travel, the loss of power, flooding – these and more, allied with our vulnerability and fears, very quickly strip the lighter top layers off any Christmas party.
So I invite you to peel the layers off Christmas, to strip it back, and to draw strength, courage and vision from the deeper meaning, as St John explains it, is what it is really about. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out…. The Word became flesh and lived for awhile among us …
One hundred years ago, children sitting in the congregation here will have written to Father Christmas, as children still write to Santa today. This year it might be Furby Boom, Teksta Robotic Puppy, LeapPad Ultra, but copies of those letters from 1913 in historical collections show the top ten requested Santa gifts: first – Sweets, second – nuts, third – a rocking horse, fourth a doll – and so on, gloves, a toy train, oranges, books, hankies and skates.
1913 was a vulnerable year – Carson had founded the Ulster Volunteer Force. The House of Lords had rejected the Irish Home Rule Bill. There was revolution in Mexico. Women suffragettes were on the march in the USA. There were wars in the Balkans. King George I of Greece was assassinated. The South African Parliament outlawed the ownership of land by black people. There was a major strike in the English midlands, and the long Dublin Lockout was in full swing throughout that Christmas and was taking its toll: tenements, infant mortality, tuberculosis and poverty. Miners were on the march in India. In South Wales 439 miners were killed in an explosion in a mine. The people here for Christmas that year would have had much of this on their minds; as we come here too in 2013 with much on our minds.
It would be wrong to portray 1913 as a ‘calm before the storm world.’ Almost certainly, the people facing this pulpit in Christmas 1913 were looking, not at one plain pillar here, but at two plain ones – this and that, without its red marble memorial. For all the upheaval of 1913, by this time the following year, Christmas 1914, almost certainly there would have been a very different mood mong the congregation. The names which would eventually be indelibly engraved on that memorial and on many like it were, by the next Christmas, beginning to accumulate in families and communities, and in lives in tragic proportions. The Downton-type idyll of my Advent calendar – if it ever existed at all – was being undone.
Throughout that history, throughout every time, throughout our own personal history, the layers of Christmas celebration may of course be delightful and enjoyable. And so we do wish one another merriment, happiness, and joy.
But the potency of the Gospel – its power to strengthen us, to enliven us, to give us light and hope, no matter what is happening in our lives – its real power lies in stripping back the layers and rediscovering, adult and child alike, that this is not a birthday celebration, but rather with great wonder, like that of the shepherds, with deep reverence like that of the wise men; with obedience and fear like Mary and Joseph, we discover again the great mystery, that ‘this is the Word made flesh.’ ‘Emmanuel.’ ‘God with us” – the Christ-child – who in this incarnation gathered into one all things earthly and heavenly, to fill us not only with joy, but with God’s love and peace.
‘The Word became flesh and lived among us …’ John 1.14