Christmas Day 2014.
Hymns O come all ye faithful; Angels from the realms of glory (the gloria); See amid the winters snow; Hark the herald angels sing
Fifty-eight years ago in England, my Christmas present from my parents was a new watch: my older sister got an antique one. Disappointed, for hers looked more beautiful than mine, I cried: I was only nine. Around thirty years ago, in the Borneo village I’ve been going to for forty-nine years, my unwelcome Christmas task was to judge the prettiest little girl contest – with two fathers, both ex-pupils, each demanding I chose their daughter. Fifteen years ago in Germany, I added honey to the carrots and almonds to be eaten with the Christmas Eve goose, not then knowing that heating chestnut honey makes any dish very bitter. The envy, moral dilemma and trivial disaster of those three imperfect Christmas celebrations in three different countries represent three memories of ordinary, imperfect life.
God intentionally became ordinary, and was thus not just an austere ‘God up there,’ but also ‘God with us, God in us’ here, experiencing ordinary imperfect life. After an extraordinary start, God in Jesus was born ordinarily of Mary, incarnated for all in the Image of God he represented in his gender-neutral swaddling clothes. As a baby, Jesus would doubtless have had two good nights – ‘we’re great parents’ – followed by three sleepless nights – ‘who’ll take this kid off our hands!’ As a child, we know he disappeared in Jerusalem, terrifying his parents, and was a bit cocky when found: an ordinary child. In his adult ministry, Jesus could be tetchy at times. Human as well as divine, because Jesus is God born on earth and God is our father and mother, God in God’s entirety knows and stands by all people. All people, equally, irrespective of ethnicity, gender and rank, of wealth, orientation and degree of faith. God, knowing our imperfections, accepts us as we are, and we are acceptable to God as we are –which doesn’t mean any and every attitude and action is fine, but rather that God still embraces us, hopes for us, forgives us, loves us. God came to earth in divine yet human form to raise us up to heaven or, as the Orthodox put it, Jesus came to earth that we might be divine.
However, God didn’t come to earth so we could sentimentalise baby Jesus but ignore what the Christ did for justice and love of humans while on earth, or ignore what God as Parent, Child and Spirit is. To know what that might mean, we must risk listening, risk trusting, risk being in God. God didn’t come to earth just for us to enjoy a decorated tree and endless food, gorgeously tasty though it might be! Winter candles, feasting and family meetings belong to any half-decent winter solstice, and treating your neighbour as you would like to be treated is a base-line of most moral codes and traditions. God came to earth to challenge, to learn from, to engage with, and to comfort us all then, now and forever. Accepting us as we are, whatever our inadequacies and tediously repeated failings, God in Christ challenges us to risk stretching ourselves that bit further, risk using the gifts, experiences, and potential we each have, however young or old, to live out lives of kindness with fairness, love with justice, secure in God’s love, and following the Way of Christ.
So this week, this month, this coming year, whether our faith is fragile, firm or the usual mixture, why not take a risk? Not the involuntary risk of Christians persecuted in many parts of the world this day, especially those in Syria, many of whom fled there from Turkey a century ago, and in Iraq and Pakistan. But, knowing we each count for God, why don’t we voluntarily risk taking the coming of God to earth seriously, allowing it to impact on our own faith and life journey. Because Jesus came once, Christ is here, reaching out, affirming, enfolding, accepting, challenging.
Where is Christ? A dream of the Russian novelist and faithful Christian Turgenev gives an answer. In it, he saw himself sitting in the pew. Feeling Christ’s presence, he looked round but, seeing just an ordinary man with ‘a face like all men’s faces,’ he turned back. Yet still feeling that strong presence, he turned and looked again, again seeing ‘the same face, like all men’s faces, with the same everyday though unknown features. And suddenly,’ he recounts, ‘my heart sank, and I came to myself. Only then I realised that just such a face-a face like all human faces- is the face of Christ.’
Until we meet again, whether that is next Sunday or next Christmas, let us all therefore risk respecting each person, including ourselves, as having that of Christ in them; let us risk picking up the challenge of generous justice and forgiving love demanded by Christ. Meanwhile, amid inevitable envies, dilemmas and disasters, may we all celebrate Christ’s birth with joy and thankfulness.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Christmas Day 2014