Christmas Day 2018

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

Love them or loathe them, visitors are part of Christmas.

There are those visitors who just drop by, have a mince pie and go – great.  There are those who drop by, sink into an armchair and don’t seem to want to leave and you have to begin that yawning business to give them the hint – or put your pyjamas on – I find that usually works!  And there are those who arrive with their cases packed with everything for a long stay – longer than you thought they were coming for.  And they take over the house with their stuff and you end up having to put people in all the rooms and maybe on the sofas and there’s a queue outside the bathroom and it should be wonderful but it simply ends up being stressful and exhausting.  And then they go and you wave them off, shut the door and say, well that was nice to see them!

One of my favourite Christmas films is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and it’s a lot about visitors and the hell that they bring with them and the unexpected brother-in-law, wife, two kids and the dog. 

But of course we also love visitors, connecting us back with family and friends, giving us that great sense of what hospitality means, sharing our life, sharing our table, bringing added joys to the festivities.  But it’s still nice to see them go and to get the place back to yourself!

I don’t like disagreeing with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Henry VIIIth who had the unenviable task of dealing with the king’s divorce - but there’s one thing I have to disagree with him about.  As you probably know, Cranmer was the author of much of the Book of Common Prayer and in that book there are wonderful Collects for every Sunday of the year.  Each one is a work of art in itself.  But in Advent and Lent we have the instruction to keep using the collect for the first Sunday of each of those seasons every day, as a common thread.  So during the four weeks of Advent we’ve been praying at each evensong the same Collect

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;

And it’s that that I disagree with, that little phrase, which the modern Collect, to be fair, has got rid of, ‘came to visit us’.

It puts into my mind the notion that Jesus is the same as some of the visitors that we have around our homes, dropping by, cluttering the place up, outstaying their welcome, eating all the food, polishing off the sherry, monopolising the TV remote.  God as a visitor does not seem that positive a notion.

The gospel for today is the great Prologue to St John’s gospel.  There’s no mention of Bethlehem, no mention of stables, no mention of shepherds, of angels, of wise men, not even of Mary and Joseph.  To be honest it isn’t very Christmassy at all but it is the greatest piece of theological writing in the Bible.  John’s not writing narrative, he’s not telling us a story, he’s unfolding truth, he’s attempting to express the inexpressible, to put into words the greatest mystery and he says it in these words

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

God did not choose to visit the earth like some pagan God descending from Mount Olympus to frolic with mortals.  God did not choose to come like some ET figure crying out in his heart ‘Phone home’ all the time.  God did not come to visit, God came to stay.  He came not to visit us in great humility as we have been praying, God came to embrace life with great humility.

John Donne in his poem ‘Nativity’ expresses something of the truth of this

There he hath made himself to his intent        

Weak enough, now into our world to come. 

It was the humbling that enabled God not just to visit but to live, the immensity of our concept of God had to be found in the form of a tiny baby with all of a baby’s vulnerability, all of a baby’s needs, all of a baby’s fragility.  This is what the word becoming flesh means.  That word, which when spoken, as we were reminded of in our Second Reading, created all that is, is the most powerful word that has ever sounded through the universe, and that word is now humbled into the gentle cry, the contented murmur of a baby feeding at his mother’s breast, laid in straw in an ox’s stall.

There he hath made himself to his intent       

Weak enough, now into our world to come. 

And this God who comes, whose birth at Bethlehem we celebrate is not the unwelcome visitor but the guest that we have desired, the companion, the one for whom we hoped, the blessing for which we longed. 

In the Eucharist there’s a great exchange of roles – Jesus is the real host at this celebration, we are here as guests, he is the bread-breaker and also the bread himself, he is the wine-pourer and also the wine himself.  In the same way at Christmas we realise that in fact we’re not the visited but it is we who are the visitors.  As the prophet Isaiah made clear in our First Reading we are those looking for

‘the return of the Lord to Zion’.

The Christmas story is all about visitors but not about Jesus visiting but about shepherds and wise men and angels finding their way to the place where he was born and then returning to their own homes with good news.  They were visiting the one they’d been looking for and finding him, finding the baby, they can return home with renewed spirits, with fresh hope.

We end this year in a very difficult place.  There can be few people around who consider that this is a good place to be.  There are 94 days to Brexit and the clock really is ticking.  I can’t imagine that many of our political leaders are happy with what they’ve done this year.  It’s a mess and the sense of uncertainty that is now in London and nationally is very real and very damaging.  And in the midst of that uncertainty we celebrate this Christmas and become the visitors at the door of the Holy Child. 

There is one simple truth that we proclaim at Christmas and it doesn’t matter how the preacher dresses it up, what tack we take, the message is the same and the message is true.  What we find when we enter that stable, in which the immensity of the divine is to be found in the weakness of human flesh, is that God is with us, Emmanuel, God is with us, not for a time, not as a visitor, but as the sharer with us of the joys and the sorrows of life, the pleasures and the pains, the hopes and the disappointments.  This is not a come and go God, not the visitor we are eager to see the back of, but the one who makes his home with us and we, our home with him.

We end the year in a very difficult place but we end it where we began it with those simple words on our lips and in our hearts, God is with us.  And whatever it is that we have to face in the New Year that is on the horizon, we never face it alone or without that deep sense of joy and hope that comes from looking into the crib and seeing the child who holds heaven in his yet to be wounded hands.

There he hath made himself to his intent       

Weak enough, now into our world to come. 

And strong enough to be our Saviour.  God is with us.