The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 63.7-9; Hebrews 2.10-18; Matthew 2.13-23
Woolworths, British Home Stores, Debenhams, the list is endless of those famous names that’ve disappeared from our high streets over the last few years, the places that we thought would always be there, the shops we thought we could never do without
And then in the last few months another old name was added to the list – Thomas Cook. As a Leicester born boy I have a particular affection for Mr Cook. A statue of him stands outside Leicester Railway Station, with his packed case ready at his feet. He was a businessman, a fervent Baptist who saw the possibility of arranging group travel when in 1841 he organised for some people to travel by train from Leicester to Loughborough for a teetotallers rally. That sounds a long long way from package holidays to Magaluf which tend not to be teetotal – but it was religious outings with which he began.
But Thomas Cook suffered like many high street travel agents because all of us can now book our holidays on our various devices. So maybe you use something like ‘Trivago’ or ‘Hotels.Com’ or any of the other online booking tools which can help you find the best hotel at the best price, as the adverts are constantly reminding us.
But the hotel which I doubt will come up on your search for the perfect holiday accommodation is ‘The Walled Off Hotel’ in Bethlehem. As you’ll be well aware, the State of Israel, has in the last twenty years, constructed a wall to separate Israel from the Palestinian West Bank. That means that to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, just as the Holy Family did on many occasions, you have to go through a security check and through gates in the wall.
After queuing to be let in you emerge alongside the wall on the road that leads down into the centre of not so little town of Bethlehem. The first thing that you notice is that the Palestinian side of the wall is completely decorated with graffiti, and amongst what has been painted, some significant works by the artist we know as Banksy.
You can see the dove with an olive branch in its mouth wearing a bullet proof jacket. You can see a donkey having its security pass being checked by an armed Israeli soldier, a protestor in the stance of someone lobbing an explosive actually throwing a bunch of flowers. And as the wall bends round a corner you arrive at the hotel, ‘The Walled Off Hotel’, a joint enterprise between Banksy and its Palestinian owner.
It’s USP, unique selling point, is that it has the worst views of any hotel in the world. Every room looks out onto the wall and in its public spaces it doesn’t have slot machines but a variety of displays that tell of the plight of the Palestinian people.
Matthew tells the story of the nativity by setting it into a slightly different political context to that used by Luke. Luke, of course, tells of the registration that the occupying Roman authorities impose on the local community. That’s the reason why Mary and Joseph have to make the journey from north to south, from Galilee to Judea, Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Matthew, however, looks from a much more Jewish perspective. He begins his gospel by setting out Jesus’s ancestry, so that his readers know that this child is of David’s line. But there’s a very different king on the throne, Herod is king, not David, and it is Herod and not the Romans who play the significant political role in Matthew’s telling of the story.
One of the features of the last decade has been the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and not least in those attempting the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean, a sea that we have always thought of as a playground that has now become a watery graveyard. It’s five years since we were all shocked by that terrible picture that was on our screens and in our papers, of the little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying washed up on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey. Like a bit of driftwood, like so much rubbish, the boy had ended up on the beach, three years old, dying as he fled with his family, just looking for a place of safety. A slaughter of the innocents.
The parallels with what we heard in the Gospel today are powerful. A capricious, weak and fearful ruler targets even the children in his determination to keep power. Mary and Joseph flee the country, become a refugee family like so many in that region now. Others who don’t flee are slaughtered. The killing of the Holy Innocents, is one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole Christmas narrative. The ancient cry of Rachel for her children rings through the gospel and this liturgy and around the world.
Christmas is the celebration of something so deeply profound and unimaginably powerful. The language we so often use of God is all about power, God can appear remote, untouchable, fearful, awesome, immovable and yet at Christmas we see all of this being reversed, all of this being challenged, all of this being re-understood. Christmas reveals God as vulnerable, small, innocent, subject to everything that we might face, God is revealed not in the trappings of majesty but in the clothing of humility. The Second reading spoke of it like this
‘he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect’
and then it says
‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’
This is the God we find in the manger, the God of which angels sing, the God which shepherds adore and before whom the wise fall down. God enters the human condition so that what we suffer, God in Jesus suffers; what we see, God in Jesus sees; what we are, God in Jesus is.
The prophet Isaiah, as we heard in our First Reading, looked forward to all of this when he writes
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them
God had tried everything, prophets, angels, messengers, but there was only one way to save humanity. "If you want something done, do it yourself" said Napoleon Bonaparte! The poet R S Thomas said something similar in his poem ‘The Coming’ but in a way that’s more attuned to the divine instinct. Looking from the father’s side at the state of humanity, the son simply says
The incarnation, which is the mystery of the faith at the heart of Christmas, is the celebration of this. God sent Jesus to share our life, to share in the reality of the world, to know life as it is lived, to know what it is to suffer, to know what it is to love, to know what it is to live.
The plight of so many, not just in the Middle East but elsewhere as well, the needs of refugee children who need to find a place of safety in our own country, the walled off people in so many places, the victims of the wickedness of others, all of these, our sisters and brothers, can look to Jesus knowing that he is one with them, that the flesh he shares is their flesh. And whatever it is that you and I are facing, we too can look to Jesus in the same way.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them
… his presence that saved us.
The truth of Christmas is so much more powerful than the way we celebrate it often suggests – it is more barbed wire than tinsel – but the truth is there to sustain us now, just as the food of this Eucharist is here to sustain us now. Whatever we are in the midst of God is in the midst of it too. Holding on to that truth is the real gift of Christmas.