The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
The first fingers of dawn were just touching the eastern sky, the darkest moment was just passing, a few lights were flickering, there were just a handful of people about. There was a hum of expectation in the air, the thrill of anticipation as people waited with a renewed sense of hope. Maybe today, maybe now, maybe for me and for those I love.
I’m not talking about Bethlehem - that was Wednesday morning arriving at a supermarket on the Old Kent Road just as the store sign was buzzing into life and the queue of people waiting patiently in the dark were let in.
I was on a quest for Pigs in Blankets and a few other things given that the plans we had for Christmas had all been hastily rearranged – and I’d hardly anything in for Christmas Day. But it was hopeless. Not a turkey in sight, not a pig in a blanket to be had, not a Christmas pudding worth buying. I left dismal, down-hearted, miserable with just a few Brussel sprouts in a bag.
We will remember this Christmas but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. It comes at the end of a year that many of us are eager to put behind us and forget. However the pandemic has affected us – and it certainly hasn’t affected all of us equally – it’s been tough going. There have been amazing moments along the way but I don’t want to live through this again. The entry into Tier 4 and the new restrictions around Christmas ‘put the tin hat on it’ as they’d say up north.
The Gospel that we read every Christmas Day without fail is one of the most amazing pieces of writing, one of the most thrilling bits of theology that we have. John doesn’t tell us about the details of the nativity, he isn’t interested in inns and stables, angels and shepherds, he isn’t even bothered about Mary and Joseph. John would have no interest in the fact that I couldn’t find Pigs in Blankets to accompany my non-existent turkey. John paints a bigger picture.
For John the incarnation, the very thing that we celebrate at the heart of Christmas Day, the fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, is both a timeless truth and an imminent reality, it is outside of time and part of the present moment. The birth of Jesus is bigger than any fine detail in a renaissance painting that might adorn your Christmas cards. God is painting on a vast canvas as heaven touches earth and the eternal embraces the now.
And John’s approach is mirrored in our Second Reading. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the prologue to what he then writes, also speaks of truth that spans time, speaking of both ‘long ago’ and ‘these last days’. God’s voice echoes around the universe and the incarnate Word is found in the cry of a baby new-born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
‘Break forth together into singing’ says the prophet Isaiah, ‘for the Lord has comforted his people.’
Well we can’t sing this Christmas but you can’t stop our hearts overflowing in joy, comfort and joy. The Lord has comforted us, who have been looking for the salvation of God. And in this timeless moment God is with us.
We need this Christmas, whatever the restrictions; we need this child, however tiny and vulnerable. We need the hope and the peace that the baby represents, we need the man who raises our humanity towards divinity, who embraces life in all its messiness.
These past tough months, if they’`ve taught us anything, have taught us how much we need each other, how inter-dependent we are, how much we need to feel a touch, hear a voice, see a face. We’ve learnt what community is really about, what is of the essence of relationship, what is the substance of what can often be insubstantial. We have learnt how we need proximity, how distance can be destructive to our sense of self, our sense of well-being.
The growth of our online community, many of whom are with us now, has been one of the amazing features of the year – people who now know each other so well because they worship with each other every day and support each other with their prayers and are part of who we are. We also know that so much of what being church means is about handling the bread and sharing the cup, it’s about offering the peace and knowing and seeing and recognising each other – it’s about the shared experience of encounter with God within sacred space, the physicality of our religion.
As God becomes as we are, as the new-born child is laid down in the chaos of the world, we experience the God who has become intimately present, not distanced but alongside, not remote but immediate, not muted but vocal, word and flesh manifesting the one who is love.
Christmas requires us to see the bigger picture, the star lit, angel-filled sky, visitors from near and far, the improbable made possible. God paints Christmas on a huge canvas and challenges my obsession with the fine detail of my own Christmas.
We need to look beyond the now to the future, beyond today to tomorrow. There’s another year of grace awaiting us, things will get better, there is hope, there is plenty worth looking forward to, the darkness will never overcome the light and ‘God wins’, to use the best spoiler alert of this online year.
John Betjeman in his famous poem ‘Christmas’ moves us from the detail of our Christmas to the universal truth that needs to be held on to. He wrote it back in 1954 but we need to hear his words now
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
The one-with-us God who entered our world in the chaos of that first Christmas is present with us now, sharing our space, up close and personal, ready to be placed in your open, needy hands. The eternal becomes temporal, the distant becomes immanent, the word becomes flesh and dwells with us, then, now. This is the ‘big picture Christmas’ that nothing can diminish – this is simply God with us.