First Sunday after Christmas and Holy Innocents
Isaiah 61 10-62.3; Galatians 4 4-7; Luke 2, 15-21
Hymns: It came upon a midnight clear; A great and mighty wonder; In the bleak midwinter; O come all ye faithful
‘Mary did you know your baby will make a blind man see?
Mary did you know your baby will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that baby has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.’
The song-writer Mark Lowry clearly sets out the paradox of Mary in his ‘Mary did you know’ song of some years back. On the one hand, Mary did know from the angel Gabriel that her child would be of God, as also foretold in various prophets. Yet on the other hand, no person so young would have enough experience and wisdom to grasp that pain and joy, fame and failure tend to go together. And no mother could grasp that her suckling baby was to save all people but yet die before her eyes before she was fifty. True, her son wouldn’t die as early, or as quickly, as those first born innocents in Bethlehem, slaughtered by Herod to eliminate any challenges to his power, a slaughter we remember on this Holy Innocents day, along with the current slaughter of more innocents in the Middle East, victims of the lust for power and vengeance of evil men. But Mary’s son would die early enough for any parent.
Anxiety and especially ambiguity is commonly felt by new parents, especially those in poor circumstances like mothers in Kenya being supported this Christmas by a Church of England appeal. But such ambiguity is generally air-brushed out in paintings of the Nativity, leaving elegant tranquil awe, which we can rectify by substituting the face, any face, of a fear-filled victim of the so-called Islamic State.
And what of the shepherds, those lowly men visiting an equally lowly cattle shed to see a King, a Saviour? Were they all unambiguous success stories, seeing, believing, going back to spread the word? Well, the ones who made it to Bethlehem may have been: but spare a thought for the ones left behind! Luke doesn’t mention them, but he didn’t need to, for anyone in that region would know that sheep are never, ever, left alone, especially at night, for while wide-jawed dogs can ward off the wolves, there must be a man, or a boy, to supervise the dogs lest they fight each other and thereby let the wolves attack. How would they have felt, those left on the hillside, to hear at second hand what their brothers cousins and fathers had seen with their own eyes? Were they happy to have stayed on their familiar hillside? Or envious at the tales their returning mates told?
Would they have understood that night as fulfilling the words of the prophets, especially Isaiah? I doubt it. What they would know is that, being ‘just’ shepherds, absolute nonentities in the regional pecking order, they were being favoured to bring good news to their peers, which Luke says they did. They might even, as Isaiah put it, have been thrilled ‘to exult in my Lord for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.’ While next week we have the rich foreign Kings coming to visit Jesus in the feast of the Epiphany, today’s image is in many ways vastly important for us. It is marginalised local people who are clearly worth their weight in gold, marginalised local people who have the first chance to ‘see this thing which has come to pass,’ take it, and make use of it in mission, ‘this thing’ being, as Lowry’s song says, ‘God in the shape of Jesus the baby come to offer freedom to all.’
Are there conditions? Well, Paul seems to cite one, remembered on 2nd January, that of the ritual marking of Jesus through circumcision. This act sets out Jesus’ status, his identity as Jewish as opposed to Gentile, and thus as someone with whom any other Jew could share touch, food, and friendship. This conforms to what the Hebrew Bible said, and Paul confirmed: ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman under the law.’ The ‘fullness of time’ doesn’t mean when Greece and Rome had got things nicely organised for such a birth, for on that reasoning China would have been a better place for God to have come to earth, being even more organised. It was the birth which made the time full, ripe, ready. Moreover, Paul was writing mainly to Gentiles in Galatia, not Jews, and while we know circumcision was an essential marker for Jewish males it was not for females and, thanks to Paul’s decision, quickly ceased to be relevant for male Christians too.
The marker of identity for a follower of Christ, irrespective of gender or ethnic origin, is pledging the heart, the mind and the being to God as Parent, Child and Spirit against the yardstick of justice and mercy, and respect for all, including one’s own conscience. The sum of all such followers, tentative and firm alike, becomes the church, ‘one in Christ Jesus.’
This coming year, there will be points at which each of us will feel pressured to act against our conscience, or to keep silent when we see or hear others so act against our neighbours or work-colleagues in matters of honesty or, more commonly, of justice and equity. Our response should be to focus on the Word of God as we understand it through Christ, live it with the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and go forward in trusting love. Otherwise, why are we celebrating Christ’s birth?
As Lowry puts it:
Mary did you know your baby will save our sons and daughters
Did you know your baby has come to make you new,
This child you delivered, will soon deliver you.
The Edwardian poet Minnie Louse Haskins gives a simple guide for ‘living the Word and thus the Way’ in her poem, ‘The Hand of God:’
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I might tread into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than an unknown way.’
May the hand of God as Parent, the light of God as Child, and the guidance of God as Spirit underlie each day of this coming year.
28th December 2014