Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
This Christmas night we gather here to worship God on this “queen of feasts” as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem – as the wonderful prologue from John’s gospel that we have just heard read puts it, on this night “the Word became flesh” – God became one of us in a tiny helpless baby – the divine became human in order that the human might share in the divine life.
It is the most wonderful mystery and the most wonderful message that the world can ever hear. In Luke’s account the story is accompanied by shepherds and angels – but tonight we focus on John’s account – not so much pictorial and vivid in its narrative, but rather plain and bold statements of the truth. The Word – Jesus – was, is and always will be God. John the Baptist heralded his coming, witnessing to Jesus as the one true Light of this dark and troubled world.
And the world was mixed in its response to the Word becoming flesh. Many rejected Jesus and his message – and countless more ever since. But some received him, and believed him to be God. And for those who believe in him, the privilege is granted of being children of God. This privilege is open to all of us.
Christmas is very much a time for giving – the gift of God to us in the birth of Jesus is echoed in our giving presents to our nearest and dearest. But of course John’s prologue to his gospel also emphasises the need to receive – and receiving can be more challenging than giving, because it involves our acceptance of the gift.
Sometimes the most important gifts are the completely unexpected ones. I remember one Christmas some years ago at my Community in Oxford. It was just two days before Christmas, to be precise. I had just finished my breakfast and I looked out of the Convent first floor window onto our gardens and admired the frosty scene. It looked beautifully “crisp and even” as if St Stephen’s Day had come a few days early. Then to my surprise I noticed a fox crouched on the lawn near our very old mulberry tree. I knew that foxes roved our garden at night, but it was unusual to see one in daylight. As I gazed at it admiringly the thought occurred to me, “I wonder if I go out into the garden how near it will let me approach”. So that is what I did. I didn’t even bother to put a coat on, but went straight downstairs and out into the cold, bright atmosphere. There was no one else about – just the fox and me. As I approached it, it saw me, but remained still. Suddenly I stopped in my tracks. A cat came into view, not very far from the fox. This will be interesting, I thought.
The two creatures gazed at each other, but to my surprise the fox did not move. Then the cat went over to the mulberry tree and climbed up into its branches on the right hand side of the tree. To my great delight the fox then also climbed into the tree, and positioned itself on the branches on the left hand side of the spreading mulberry tree. I’d never seen a fox climb a tree before. For a while both creatures sat happily in the tree, rather like a delightful illustration from Alice in Wonderland. What a wonderful picture for a children’s book, I thought.
Then the cat came down from the tree and slowly wandered off into our Prayer Garden. After some moments (by now I was missing not having a coat in the cold air, but remained entranced) the fox also came down from the tree. It went off into the distance in much the same direction, but by no means in hot pursuit.
As I stood there gazing in the direction in which the two creatures had disappeared, I realised that God had given me my Christmas present two days early that year. My mind recalled the well- known passage from the prophet Isaiah –
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”.
Somehow that morning, just two days before Christmas, the message of the Prince of Peace born for us made itself felt amid frost and tree and creatures of our garden.
And our world is in desperate need of such a message of peace. As this year of 2015 draws to a close, and we look back, we will be sadly aware of the tragic world headlines of this year – of the countless refugees and migrants fleeing regimes of terror such as in Syria and searching for a better, safer life…..of the brutality of ISIL with its horrendous methods of torture and killings…of families including children and babies drowning in their attempts to cross the sea to Europe.
Tragedy and loss is part of the human condition, made infinitely worse by acts of atrocity and terrorism. The Christmas message speaks to such tragedy and horror and says that we have cause for hope – no matter what tragedies take place in the world or in our own lives, God in Christ is always with us. The baby born at Bethlehem would one day experience horror himself in his manner of death by crucifixion. Because God in Jesus has become one of us, we can be assured that there is nothing we can experience that is beyond the scope of God’s love and redemption.
I would like to close with some words my Community in Oxford read at what we call the Office of Preparation – the service of readings and psalms that we always have in Chapel immediately before we celebrate midnight mass. The service contains a reading entitled the “Solemn Announcement of the Nativity” and it is taken from one of the ancient martyrologies – those texts that were the official registers of the early Christian martyrs, of whom Jesus Christ was the proto-type – except of course that Jesus was not merely human, but God in the flesh. There are numbers of years in this reading that with our modern minds we might want to question for their accuracy. But what these named years do – whether or not they may be accurate is not really the point – is that they underline that our Christian faith is rooted in historical fact – that there really was a man who suffered death by crucifixion in the first century and that his name was Jesus – and that he claimed to be God in the flesh – and that he was born in Bethlehem – and that he came that our sins and failings might be forgiven, and that our relationship with the God of Love might be restored.
So here is this particular ancient text of the Solemn Announcement of the Nativity –
“In the 5,199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when God in the beginning created the heaven and earth; the 2, 957th year after the flood; the 2, 015th year from the birth of Abraham; the 1,501st year from Moses, and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt; the 1,032nd year from the anointing of David King; in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; the 752nd year from the foundation of the city of Rome; the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, all the earth being at peace, Jesus Christ, the Eternal God, and the Son of the Eternal Father, desirous to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah, made Man of the Virgin Mary.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh”.