First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas Day

William Loader

Christmas Day: 25 December Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

Celebration! Tell the story. Its simplicity invites drama, poetry, pageant. The communities I know come together in the context of the special, the giving and receiving of presents, the feast, the Christmas music. They come to celebrate. It is not the time for heavy sermons.

It is for many both an exciting and a stressful time. Family members come together who might normally not get on well together. Someone is usually carrying more than their fair share of responsibility, so efforts of niceness may be overlaying resentment. For others memories of closeness are accompanied by memories of loss and grief. Christmas is a space which invites the coming together of many very significant life issues, but not as issues to be thought about, more as issues of experiencing, frequently unexpressed and inarticulate. That is why we need the angels, the romance, the symbols, the colour of the story. People can enter the story, find themselves there, make their own exploratory or rededicatory journeys with the shepherds, just to see, to be there.

For some who may make the Christmas service their one church visit for the year, perhaps just to be back with family and old friends, the story is still familiar, a mixture of fantasy and faith, an opportunity to engage that latent spirituality which has not found the church rings their bells. The inarticulate spirituality which will sometimes bring children for baptism in a kind of vaguery too often despised. The Christmas story remains a sacred site for very many people inside and outside our churches. Today is the day to encourage people to enjoy it, to touch its sacredness and let it touch them.

One of the best ways to engage the story and help others engage it is to build its motifs into the liturgy. We are sometimes like the shepherds sitting on dark hills, needing to be surprised by the divine, needing to hear about hope. We can make our approach in prayer with the shepherds to the Christ child and what he represents. We can bring our gifts.

Fantasy and reality are not opposites. Part of our role is to help people make the reality connections in the fantasy. This is not the space for untangling what appears to be Luke’s confusion in dating Jesus’ birth to a census which took place in 6CE, rather than back in the last years of Herod 6-4 BCE. But the politics are not irrelevant. Caesar Augustus was hailed as son of God, as bringer of peace, as saviour, as a good news person. Rome made much of these claims to legitimate its regime of suppression and exploitation, law and order, throughout the empire. So the Christmas story is a cheeky response. It parodies these claims: the Son of God is a baby whose family can’t find accommodation; the good news of peace comes to ordinary shepherd folks of the hills; the peace is about real peace, real inclusiveness. It is people’s peace, people’s power, people’s salvation and liberation. The parody at birth reflects the parody at death, where we see the king crowned with thorns upon the throne of a cross.

Without its subversive theme the story degenerates into a myth of origins: the reason why we all have a good time, a kind of aetiology of the west. At the same time it is more than a reactive story. It sets the meaning of Jesus’ ministry in the picture frame of his nativity. In Jesus we celebrate God’s reaching out to all humankind, none written off, none despised, none too strange, too bad, too inhuman. In Jesus we celebrate the meeting of earth and sky: the divine human encounter which gives sense and purpose to existence, the possibility of participating in the life of God and the peace of God in the world of reality. In Jesus we identify the life of God in the finger mixing the mud or writing in the dust, in the homeless itinerancy, in the broken bread and poured out wine.

The Christmas story is the transposition of all of this back into the imagined setting of his birth. Its motifs function as codes to convey something not really about a baby, but about a year of ministry, of compassion and death. It is like the language of dreams. It is a way of approaching reality which engages our fantasy. We see it already in the story’s location: Bethlehem, the city of David; here is the Son of David, the Messiah. We see it in the shepherds: David was a shepherd boy. But its deeper message is that Jesus offers a vision of peace which the world needs and we as individuals need. The story will do that in the retelling if we, the storytellers, give it its setting, conserve its creative and subversive tensions, and expose the opposites it reconciles in a way which invites people to find space for themselves within it. Today we are frequently doing so in contexts where the story has been hijacked. Faithfulness to the tradition entails ensuring its marking stones are not displaced and clearing the space for what is profound ceremony.

See also The Christmas Stories

Epistle: Christmas Day: 25 December Titus 3:4-7

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