Patrick Thom preaches at Nine Lessons and Carols, our annual festival of Christmas readings and music. 9:16mins
This sermon was part of the Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast on Sunday 19 December
We are still in the season of Advent, with just under a week to go, but you can feel the excitement rising. It was hard to get too excited about Christmas last year: there were no Christmas parties – at least, not for the likes of us – no family visits, not much seasonal good cheer. We hope for better this year, but we are still aware of constraints and risks, so I want to take you back a few years, before Covid-19 and all its associated horrors, back to a simpler time of freedom and fun.
One of the features of the Christmas season was always the Christmas party, which was great for party-lovers (did I tell you my middle name was Scrooge?), and if you were really lucky you might get invited to a fancy-dress party, or even host one yourself. There is just one question around fancy-dress parties: what shall I go as? And, unless you are the Rector and have access to a full-on cow costume, as seen at this morning’s scratch nativity, there are really only two possible answers: what can I find in a charity shop and supplement from whatever I’ve got at home? Or, if expense and effort are no object, what do I really want to go as? How do I see myself? I once found a long wig and a pair of little round glasses and a cheesecloth shirt and went to a party as John Lennon. I still couldn’t sing or play a note, but I imagined that just for a while, a little bit of Beatle cool somehow rubbed off. And if you read the society magazines, it’s fascinating to see how the rich and powerful like to go to parties as someone even more rich and powerful than they are, so you get an over-representation of Julius Caesar, Napoleon or Attila the Hun.
Why am I talking about fancy-dress parties? Well, if I may do so reverently, I like to imagine a conversation in Heaven, before the very first Christmas. Jesus is there, of course, because John has told us in the reading we have just heard, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. Jesus and his Father had been planning this for a long time, that he would come to earth ‘for us and for our salvation’, as we say in the creed, but what would he come as? And we are not talking here about fancy-dress, put on for one night and then discarded, but about a form and identity that he would wear for thirty-three years. It had to be something Jewish, for a start, for God had long ago marked out the Jews as his chosen people, and salvation would come through them.
Perhaps he could come as Abraham, the father of his people, the patriarch, to whom the original promise was given, as we heard in the second reading, God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed. Then perhaps we would see the fulfilment of the promise and the blessing of all the nations. Well, we did, but no, Jesus did not come as Abraham. So perhaps he might come as David: as the angels sang to the shepherds ‘To you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line a Saviour’. David was the great king who even as a teenager defeated the giant warrior Goliath and freed his people from the Philistines. Wouldn’t it be neat if the new David freed his people from the Romans? Well yes, it would be neat, but no, Jesus did not come as David. I know, how about the prophet Isaiah, the one who foretold Christ’s birth and kingdom? Prophets were the inspired people whose task it was to call the nation of Israel back to God when they wandered away from him, so that would be perfect, wouldn’t it? The thing is, though, that John in his reading tells us ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe.’ Jesus already has a herald in the person of John the Baptist, who himself quoted the words of Isaiah. Jesus couldn’t be his own herald, so no, he didn’t come as Isaiah.
Well, we all know the astonishing choice he made in the end. Neither patriarch nor king nor prophet, Jesus came as a helpless baby, born to an unmarried mother, away from home and in circumstances of the most wretched poverty and risk. Though he was the ruler of Heaven, he headed unerringly for the bottom of the heap. Why would he do that? Well, partly out of solidarity with the human condition. ‘He was little, weak and helpless’: haven’t we all been there? ‘With the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy.’ In a world where ‘gods’ were so often co-opted in the service of the powerful, this was emphatically a God who stood alongside ordinary people. It is also instructive to look at the reactions that he provoked in those around him. In his mother Mary, he inspired a profound and unquenchable love, which sustained her – and, I suspect, him – through all the years ahead, until she said goodbye to him at the foot of the cross. And in the shepherds, those simple, rough, uneducated men who lived rather on the margins of society? I think he inspired in them a gentleness, a tenderness and a desire to protect, to welcome him as they sensed that he welcomed them. And as for the three Kings, he brough forth in them an overflowing and outrageous generosity, giving to this peasant baby the most precious commodities in the world. He neither demanded nor commanded, as a patriarch, a king or a prophet might have done, but simply by his very being he inspired love, gentleness, welcome and generosity.
And he still does. As this year draws to a close there are, Heaven knows, enough people in our homes, in this parish, in our country and around the world who need to be treated with love, gentleness and generosity, who need to be made welcome. Christ is no longer a child but is risen and present with us, but as we encounter him once again in our imagination as a helpless child, will we allow him to inspire those qualities in us, so that we may take to those around us his love, gentleness and generosity? That would make for a really Happy Christmas.