I’m sure most of us have already started preparing for Christmas in terms of beginning to write the Christmas Cards and buy the presents and make arrangements for what we are actually doing over the festive season. But of course there is also the spiritual preparation called Advent, not just the calendars with all the chocolates in. The clergy in our archdeaconry recently went on a day conference about Advent, at which I was horrified to realize that at St James’s, we only devote one Sunday morning to thinking about Advent, because the others are all taken over by Christingles, Nativity plays, Christmas carol services or baptisms. Advent is indeed a sobering subject with its focus on Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell and the Second Coming of Christ, all things we’d rather not talk about. We are all mortal and life does not just go on for ever. The current emphasis on the celebration of the lives of individuals at most funerals is good as far as it goes, but all of us fall short of what God would have us be in some way or other. If we were all perfect, then there would be no evil in the world, whereas that is manifestly not the case. One of the messages of Advent is that we are all accountable to God and, amidst all the tinsel and the mince pies, this is a moment to take stock of our lives and possibly to make some changes to our familiar routines.
The shepherds and the wise men were all jolted out of their routines some 2,000 years ago and Mary and Joseph became the instruments of an extraordinary event: the birth of the Christ child, the Son of
God, the Saviour of the world. Mary and Joseph were called to be the parents of Jesus, the one chosen by God to bring about the healing of our relationship with him. Jesus was the Incarnate Word of God, not just a word spoken by God, but one who shared in the divinity of God while at the same time coming to share our human flesh. This demonstrates to us the full extent of God’s love for humankind and indeed that the most characteristic feature of God is the depth and unconditional nature of his love.
In Christ, we witness the birth of a King, but a King who is an outsider, born in the poorest and humblest of circumstances. The context of his birth reminds us of the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, displaced from their homes and livelihoods in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan by war, terrorism and religious persecution by ISIL or some other group of fanatics, claiming to be acting in the name of God. It’s easy to see why so many people are put off any idea of religious faith. The humble circumstances of the birth of Jesus is a salutary reminder of our duty as Christians to care for the poor, the marginalised, and the refugees, which has become such a crisis as people flee for sanctuary in Europe.
Once we strip away all the streamers, the advertising, the parties and the plum puddings, I believe that the message of Christmas does still speak to our inner selves. Essentially, God loved us so much that he came to share our human life at that first Christmas in the form of the baby Jesus. This is God at his most vulnerable and defenceless and he is born not in a great palace but in a humble stable with the animals, because there was no room for the Holy Family at the inn. The angel said to the shepherds that this was good news of great joy because a Saviour or Messiah had been born in Bethlehem and that he would bring a message of peace. Matthew invokes a prophecy of Isaiah to name the child Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’. That God is with us is arguably the most profound message of Christmas,
that he stands alongside us in all our sufferings and our joys, because he has experienced them in the person of Jesus. But he is also a Saviour who saves us from all our failures and shortcomings as well as overcoming the evil that is present in human beings and in the world, who restores our broken relationship with God and who gives us real hope and confidence for the future.
May I conclude by wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas