Christmas Day 2021
Sermon preached by
the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
‘Lockdowns, restrictions and surging infections: Europe rings in another pandemic Christmas’ was the headline on an article I read on a news website just before bedtime last night. Against that backdrop, we come to Church this Christmas morning to be nourished by the Word of God made flesh, the babe at Bethlehem. We cling to every word and its possible significance for us and our time. Isaiah’s oracle of salvation, for example, a promise of what God will do:
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;…’ (Isaiah 9.2a))
Because of this promise of what God does and will do, we can, in the words of today’s Psalm 96 ‘Sing to the Lord a new song…’ and we gather ‘to tell out his salvation from day to day.’
In the course of my recent pastoral work I’ve encountered countless people for whom Christmas is in a heap this year: people stranded, waiting for test results, couples separated in different jurisdictions, travel plans in chaos, lots of uncertainty and, of course, people who are ill, not only with covid but receiving treatment for or recovering from something else. As ever, at Christmas, our thoughts are with those who have been bereaved since we met last Christmas.
Christmas in a heap – Christmas is pretty awful for a lot of people this year. Comparisons with worse times don’t help – suffering is deeply personal and we always measure it through our own lens. I suppose there’s hardly ever such a thing as a normal Christmas any year in many people’s lives.
In the case of the Coronavirus Pandemic, most of us are sick and tired of it and, truth be told, we would really prefer on this Christmas Day to come to Church to escape omicron, Delta Antigen and PCR.
In the foreword to this year’s Christmas edition of the Radio Times the editor wrote about Christmas as ‘a glimpse of a normality in abnormal times’. ‘We all need a chance to escape,’ he said’. The Christmas advertisements harness this too: ‘Christmas – Real Magic’ says one famous ad. And another for a supermarket chain ‘Make Christmas amazing for everyone.’ And, of course, there is truth in this. There’s a lot to enjoy. There’s much about the Christian celebration of Christmas that harnesses the traditions built up over centuries that, strictly speaking, are scarcely related to the Christmas Gospel but they do add to the joy, and the normality of the feast.
In all of this, what is key is this; Christmas is celebrated always at a particular moment in time against the backdrop of all else that is going on in people’s lives. And the main point that we need to latch on to at a time like this, and to draw inspiration from, is that the first Christmas was itself at a moment in time, in place, in history, in people’s lives in a heap. If anything enfleshed the incarnation – a tautology, I know – it’s this; the son of God was born at a moment in history: in time; in place; in circumstances, deeply demanding and distressing in some people’s lives.
This is the very first point being made by the evangelist in today’s Gospel:
‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ (Luke 2.1-2)
The evangelist was writing 50 to 80 years after the death of Jesus. Now we know, and scholars tell us – and this isn’t for a full study on Christmas Day, so don’t worry – we know that there are problems with this account of history by the writer of the Gospel. ‘Historically this description is fraught with problems…’ wrote one scholar (Raymond E. Brown). That this needs to be disentangled does not change the message or the point being made, however, as so often happens in literature; that the birth of Jesus or, as Saint John described it – God – ‘the Word was made flesh’ at a particular point in time and place in people’s very real lives – lives that were in a heap for many reasons then too. Jesus, as saviour, is being portrayed deliberately, already, even as a newborn baby, as greater than all of those mentioned at the outset of today’s Gospel reading.
For about 60 years before Jesus was born, his small country was a province of the Roman Empire. That Empire was criss-crossed with a network of Roman built roads to allow for the fast-movement of troops. As Jesus grew up he would have seen the images of the Emperors – Augustus Caesar and Tiberius – on the coins in use. Thirty legions of about 5000 men were stationed strategically around that empire to maintain absolute control in the provinces; Jesus’ country was one of those. His people were a subjugated people. The closest Roman legion was stationed in Syria (also mentioned at the start of today’s Gospel) – and so power was entrusted to local rulers – vassals such as Herod the Great.
Herod the Great came to power largely because his father was well in with Julius Caesar. As a ruler he did some good. He was famously generous during a time of drought. He was well-known for his massive programme of building projects. But at the end of the day he was also a brutal tyrant. He was a realist who knew it was his duty to control the territory for the Roman Empire; and that required a balancing act between competing interests. That’s why he built fortresses all over the place including one overlooking the Temple, the Antonia Fortress, to control that area. He was such a ruthless man that he even had three of his own sons murdered, and, among others, had his own mother-in-law as well as his brother-in-law, executed.
This is hardly the stuff of an escapist magical Christmas. While Christmas is about Jesus, and not about Herod, we cannot escape the reality that this was the time and place in history into which Jesus was born. Jesus was born just before Herod died. Herod’s death was followed by rebellion. This was the world of Jesus, the backdrop of the Christmas story and its unfolding.
Think also of the personal heaps in the lives of the main protagonists in the Christmas story – Joseph’s and Mary’s lives turned on their head by the message of the angel, and all that on top of having to travel for the census, and then to crown it all, nowhere for them to stay: not at home and vulnerable. Shepherds getting on with their ordinary work also being disrupted and the Magi also – I’m sure they could’ve done without this open-ended journey into the faraway unknown. And so the story continues … lives in a heap … not least after the massacre of infants ordered by the said Herod and the escape to Egypt. Lives in a heap!
This, dear friends, is where we are invited to find hope, solace, encouragement, joy, love, and, ultimately, faith, this Christmas, in this event, in this Good News, in this God-given moment of the Word made flesh, of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us. Lives may be in a heap but the Christmas message remains the same throughout history whatever else is going on in our own lives or around us.
One headline summed up the advice of one politician – ‘Christmas can go ahead, but be careful!’ I know what was being advised, of course, but to that we might say: ‘It is Christmas. Regardless.’ Our human predicaments and circumstances might strip Christmas back to the bare essentials, but it is still Christmas. The message is still the same.
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;…’ (Isaiah 9.2a))
With the birth of Jesus, God wasn’t giving us a chance to escape. God was giving himself to us in the greatest act of solidarity and self-offering ever so that we would know God’s presence with us as we go through everything that we cannot escape.