Two different experiences of being in St. John’s this past week, one quite heavenly and the other decidedly earthly. The heavenly was sitting in the chancel on Tuesday night, listening to the last of Piotr’s Advent meditations, and contemplating the angels forming part of the exquisite artwork on the ceiling. The earthly was sitting at the back during last Saturday’s carol service, when a man came in very much the worse for drink (and probably other stuff besides) chuntering incoherently about one thing and another, including the uselessness of religion – though he didn’t put it quite as politely as that! Talk about the sublime to the ridiculous. I wasn’t quite sure I could go along with the writer of the NT Letter to the Hebrews at that point: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’. Then again, perhaps the two scenarios were not so far apart…Actually, he eventually had to be escorted out, as he was disturbing people’s appreciation of the service, and some of his language was a bit ripe. But I reflected later that priests shouldn’t too often be in the business of excluding people from churches, and I did wonder if Jesus might have handled it differently.
Angels are busy beings, though, aren’t they? In Christian understanding, they are often portrayed as being messengers of God: they span the heavenly and earthly realms, and bring important news to ordinary people. They are heavenly insiders, but they communicate with people very often on the outside.
Now, contrary to what many people suppose, it is Easter, not Christmas, which is the primary Christian festival. But there are many things which link the two festivals. One of them is the fact that Jesus is born outside, just as he will later die outside. The door of the inn closes on the one about to be born, just as the gates of the city close on the one about to die. This opposition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is present throughout the Gospel story. Jesus is rarely to be found inside, where it is safe and comfortable; he doesn’t identify himself with the social and religious parties of his day; there is no party to protect him or to promote his cause. Those who go to him must go ‘out’ to him, forfeiting the security which ordinary human associations – including families – provide. Some households briefly sheltered him, like that of his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Perhaps they wanted to try to hold him inside for a bit, to curb his compulsion always to be on his way somewhere else. But the one who on this night, ‘pitched his tent’ among us, to use the imagery of John’s Gospel, can never make anywhere his permanent home. The Son of Man, with nowhere to lay his head, is always outside.
This tension between inside and outside is acute in the story of Jesus’ birth. He is born outside, where all who are unwanted and rejected must go. The ones inside the inn – essentially Jesus’ own people – do not receive him. They are comfortable and warm on the inside, but Mary, Joseph and Jesus are left out in the cold. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, but that we say he was born ‘in the bleak midwinter’ is certainly the truth about the nature of Jesus’ coming, whatever the date of the first Christmas. It was cold outside, whatever the temperature. The Welsh priest poet, R.S. Thomas, once wrote that, ‘the very word ‘Christ’ has that crisp sound so suggestive of frost and snow and the small sheets of ice that crack and splinter under our feet, even as the wafer is broken in the priest’s fingers.’ And, in a later poem, Thomas says of Christmas, ‘Love knocks with such frosted fingers.’
It’s cold outside. It is dark, too. We are told that the shepherds came to Jesus by night, though we do not know whether it was at night that he was born. But, as with the season, so with the hour. Night, like winter, befits his coming. The light shines in the darkness. Jesus made our night time his, as he made our winter his.
Jesus was born outside and it was outsiders who found their way to him. The shepherds’ home, such as it was, was the hillside, but their outside status was more than just a matter of where they lived. The shepherds of Jesus’ day, were, in Jewish terms, Sabbath-breakers, and therefore condemned by the religious. Not only that, but their contact with blood also made them ritually impure; they were widely regarded as dirty and smelly (a bit like their sheep), uncouth herdsmen, avoided by respectable villagers and regarded as vagabonds and thieves. They had no influence, no good reputation, and yet they received a personal invitation from the angels to go to Bethlehem and witness the birth of Jesus. The Magi, while of higher status, also journeyed to Christ, in their case out of the desert. Well, as T.S. Eliot tells us in his famous poem, they were never at home in their summer palaces, ‘with the silken girls bringing sherbet’…. Matthew’s Gospel contrasts these pilgrim people with the paranoid King Herod. Outside, they watch the stars and move forward; inside, all he can do is watch his own back and go nowhere.
Where is Jesus this Christmas – inside or outside? At Midnight Mass, we place the figure of the newborn Christ in the crib. We welcome him into our houses of prayer; we ask Jesus in. In some of our churches, like here at St John’s, his presence inside our four walls continues to be affirmed long after the crib is taken down. The gentle light always burning in the sanctuary says, ‘He is here; God is with us.’ So, has Christ come inside at last? Well, if he has, it is only to break down the barriers we still build, in church and society, between the included and the excluded, us and them, insiders and outsiders. The distinction between inside and outside was drawn when Adam was driven out of the Garden of Eden. But tonight, Christmas, signals its destruction. No more entering through the many courts of the Temple to get closer to the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies has come to us in our very ordinariness, to take up residence in the messiness of our everyday human life. As an unusual version of John’s Gospel I heard at one of umpteen carol services this season puts it: ‘the Word has moved into the neighbourhood’.
There’s nothing more we can plan or do now to make Christmas happen. It’s time to stop. It’s here. It’s time for the world of the angels to infiltrate our world. When things look bleak and uncertain, as they do for many this Christmas, don’t let anyone try to tell you that the things we celebrate in this place tonight are fluffy, sentimental nonsense or emotional crutches for weak-minded people. The angels come amongst us to announce that the Word has moved into our neighbourhood. Heaven comes to earth; God comes to inhabit our cold world alongside us. Whatever we think about others or about ourselves, the neighbourhood and everyone in it matters. Our concerns are the concerns of the divine, and the good news is that, because of the birth of this child, there are no more outsiders. Thanks be to God, and a very Happy Christmas!