Sunday 18th December, 2016
by Revd Kate Tuckett
Before I started working here, I went on a retreat, and the retreat leader spoke about those rather trying days -- the ones when you wake up at 5am realising you’d forgotten you were down to do school assembly that morning. I’m sure you can all relate an equivalent from your own working lives. Well that happened to me this week except it was 9.15 and school assembly starts at 9.45. So I went in to school with a rather sketchy plan in my head to talk about being surprised by God at Christmas time, and talking about how many of the characters in the Christmas story were surprised, but ended up being joyful. So asked the children to name characters in the story, and to come and make a pageant of the crib scene. We had Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and a star, and some cows and camels, and a donkey, and an innkeeper, and then one of them said Herod. And I had a momentary panic because I’d forgotten all about Herod. But I said brilliant, come and be part of the crib scene. So we had Herod and Mrs Herod standing round the manger.
The thing is that Herod doesn’t fit very well into our Christmas pageants. We get some very weird things creeping into nativity scenes, like pious little Santas kneeling at the manger. You can get some hideous crib sets, but I’ve never seen a glow-in-the-dark King Herod.
There’s all sorts of versions of Christmas that have no basis in biblical text. There’s the Jesus that never cries, and as we progress into his wondrous childhood there’s the Jesus who would honour and obey, watch and love the lowly maiden, in whose gentle arms he lay – which is a bit odd, given that the only thing we know about that era of his life is that he ran away from his parents when he was 12. We might ask how on earth Christmas went from what it was originally -- a story of alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, pagans and angels, to a Hallmark delusion.
So often bits of the Christmas story get airbrushed out of hymns and carols and nativity plays --- as I did when I went into school -- but there are compelling reasons to remember them. After all, you only have to watch children tweeting desperate messages from Aleppo, offering a heart-rending account of their destruction, to know that the massacre of innocent children has not been relegated to history. Such children cannot be ignored. They are part of this year’s Christmas story.
The Christmas story reveals a God who enters our world as it actually exists, and not the world we often wish it would be. However much we want to tidy up the story, God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist, even though is often how we treat Jesus, like we are trying to shelter him from reality. We often behave as if Jesus is only interested in saving and loving a romanticised version of ourselves or the world, and so we offer to him a version of our best selves, perhaps so we can escape the Herod in ourselves and in the world around us.
But I think we’ve entirely lost the plot if we use church and religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of the place where difficult realities are given meaning. Religion can be a way to hide, numb or even entertain ourselves, or a place where we can dive into and find meaning in difficult truths. As we look at the images from Aleppo, in the middle of what is supposed to be the Christmas season, blinking lights and cheerful music may seem very out of place. Instead of being in a cosy Christmas mood, we may be left wondering where the hell is God.
I love this Christmas service. I love the tree, I love the music, I love the readings, I love the candles, I love the air of celebration and anticipation. I love the smell of mince pies, I love the mulled wine. But I do believe Jesus’ birth has more to offer us than that. I’m not suggesting that we place Herod on our wrapping paper or that we sit down solemnly to our Christmas dinners, but I do think that having the slaughter of the innocents take up space with singing angels and shepherds in our minds at Christmas might help us to know what to do with some of the horrors we see in the world around us. Images of Santa kneeling at a manger are comforting, perhaps, but they don’t help us to make sense of the world as it actually exists. The story of joy at Christmas only makes sense in the context of how messed up our world actually is.
The world into which Jesus was born was certainly not a Hallmark Christmas card. The world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic, silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin, and entered our violent and disturbing world. It is the only Christmas story that makes sense and it is the Christmas story that our world so desperately needs. Peace and goodwill written out in calligraphy, peace and quiet, the peace of the sleeping child, peace as a certain kind of mood, is certainly not what they need in Aleppo today. They need peace as in people not killing each other.
I am very aware that I don’t really understand the horrendous situation in Syria. I certainly have no answers. But we cannot let death and despair claim the final word. While the war continues, many more people will suffer and die, so there are still MPs to write to, charities to support and prayers to offer – our collection will be Care for calais offering hope and support to those who have fled. But the full reach of the Christmas story reminds us that even in a massacre there is hope, the Red Cross evacuation shows us that even in Aleppo, death is not the only and inevitable outcome.
The first Christmas was soldiers with swords in the streets, parents clutching their babies, begging them not to cry. God comes to the worst places and the most painful circumstances to live in the midst of tragedy. Christ comes to bear our sorrows. We have not been left alone. This holy season is the promise that God’s joy is deeper than our sadness, that ultimately life is more powerful than death, the light shines in the darkness. I realise that conflicts such as Syria are very complicated and carry widespread repercussions. I certainly have no easy answers. But we cannot let death and despair claim the final word. While the war continues, many more people, including the children, will suffer and die, so there are still petitions to sign, charities to support and prayers to offer too. But the full reach of the Christmas story reminds us, that even in a massacre, there is hope - the Red Cross evacuation shows we can yet preserve the day for younglings - at least for some of them, and
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light of Christ cannot be overcome, not by Herod, not by rebel fighters, not by ISIS, not by Donald Trump, not by any of the tyrants in the world or in our lives. This child was not born to drag us screaming into merriment, however many times we are told that we must be happy, as if cheerfulness is compulsory, which is crushingly hard to bear if death and grief have come close to us, if we are bullied or abused, if debt has risen to the roof, if this Christmas, like every other Christmas, we are alone and we have not chosen to be. Tyrants and terror may be much closer to home than Syria and may take different forms for all of us.
There’s a kind of a longing in Christmas, a nostalgia, perhaps a reminder of how life used to be, or how life should have been but never was, a smell of pine branches and oranges stuck with cloves, dreams and memories, and perhaps somewhere a lump in the throat. And the fact of all us being here, listening to ancient readings in a candle-lit church shows a longing for something more, for something holy. We can all transported into God’s presence this Christmas, only not perhaps in the way we thought.
The Christmas story tells us that God, in his great love for us, emptied himself of power, and became human, like us. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. No one has ever seen God, John explains, but Jesus has made him known. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus born as an oppressed minority in an occupied land; Jesus an immigrant; Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick , the marginalised and the untouchables; Jesus who was criticised for hanging out with sinners; Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect; Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return and to overcome evil with love; Jesus who suffered; Jesus who wept; Jesus who, while hanging on a Roman cross, said father forgive them for they know not what they do.
Even as a priest and a lifelong Christian I struggle with doubts about God; I struggle to make sense of the violence in the world, the violence in some of the Bible, the violence in my own heart. But when it feels as if there’s nothing left to my faith but a little seed of hope, that hope is in the incarnation, in the radical teaching that God loved us enough to become like us, and that when God wanted to show us what he was like, God showed us Jesus. There are no escalators going up to heaven at Christmas time. Everybody there is coming down, right here, right into our own Bethlehem, into the pain of the world, into the reality of our own lives, however far they are from the model of how we are told Christmas should be, bringing to us the God who has decided to make his home with us and who can offer us joy.But the full reach of the Christmas story reminds us, that even in a massacre, there is hope - the Red Cross evacuation shows we can yet preserve the day for younglings - at least for some of them, and even in Aleppo.