Luke 2: 1-14
Christmas is here. Glorious, wonderful, magical Christmas is here. The weather may not feel like Christmas, but spread out before us in this church is our beautiful crèche. I love to just stand and gaze at it…with wide eyed wonder, like a child. But then ever since I was a child I have loved Christmas. The magic in the air, the carols, Christmas tree lights and decorations. Opening presents with such excitement, and then turkey and minced pies and chocolates.
But for many people, that is all that Christmas is about. As a parish priest I would visit our local church junior school, and I remember one nine year old boy writing this in his Christmas essay: ‘I know Christmas should be a religious time, but for me, Christmas is a time for the necessities of life, like food, presents and booze.’ I felt sad that one so young should have already acquired such a cynical view.
And of course there is often a price to pay for all that over indulgence. I read a survey, which found that at Christmas the average person put on six pounds in weight over the Christmas period. And being cooped up together for a few days, eating too much, and watching too much TV is not always that much fun – especially if you are stuck with doing most of the cooking and clearing up. Families can get short tempered and argumentative. The same survey found (I’m not sure how they did their research!) that on Christmas Day, the average family has five arguments! So watch out.
For a lot of people, Christmas is really just a bit of escapism for a few days – escape from a dark and often gloomy winter. It’s a bit like lighting a sparkler on a dark night. For a few minutes everything is brilliant, but when it goes out, life is even darker than before.
Few lives were darker or more miserable than those of first century Palestinian shepherds. People made fun of them – they thought they were stupid, dirty. The religiously orthodox despised them because they could not keep the detailed ceremonial law. If they came into town from the fields, people would avoid them. Life was hard for them. They would spend whole nights huddled together on bleak hillsides, against the often intense cold. We can imagine those shepherds in the middle of the night in the cold dark fields below Bethlehem.
But suddenly, the black darkness was shattered by a blazing light. A messenger from God appeared to those despised shepherds, and they were terrified. But the messenger told them, ‘Don’t be frightened. I bring you good news of a great joy. For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ And those shepherds went to see. And they were the first of all the people who went to see. They were the first to see Jesus. “We have seen his glory; glory of the only begotten Son of God.”
What an extraordinary thing, that God should have chosen poor outcasts to be the first to come and set eyes upon Jesus. But perhaps not so strange. The Bible makes it clear that God has a special love and concern for the poor – the ‘anawim’, as the Old Testament has it. So much so, that the Gospels tell us that unless we become poor ourselves we will not be able to see Jesus. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.’ Blessed are you when you become poor; when you put your trust in God, when you do not trust in your wealth, your achievements, your reputation; blessed are you when you humble yourself, and become like a little child. Then you too will see God. You too will be able to kneel down with the shepherds and gaze upon the Christ child. Those shepherds were at the bottom of the pile. They had no proud walls of respectability and achievement to hide behind. They knew their need of God, and in their poverty of spirit, they were the first to see Christ. ‘We have seen his glory; glory as of the only Son of God.’
For us, it is often very hard to admit our weakness, our need for God. It hurts our pride. We’d rather strengthen our image of success and respectability. It can often be the shock of a loss, the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a job, an unrealized ambition, with the blow to our pride – often something like this which opens up a crack in our defenses, through which God can reach us, through which the light of the Gospel can shine, offering us God’s forgiveness and renewal.
Those of you who have been to the Holy Land will know the great and ancient Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest in the world, which stands over the site of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It is a huge and splendid building, and yet, the entrance into the church is less than four feet high! I took my parish on pilgrimage there one year and we sat outside watching the hundreds of visitors going in one by one. There were local Palestinians, rich Western tourists, swathed in cameras, a bishop or two, and every kind of pilgrim. But whoever they were, rich or poor, important or lowly, each had to bend down very low to get in through that door.
And I believe that is true for all of us, if we want to see Jesus this Christmas. He said we must become poor in spirit to see him. He said we must become like children to see him. We have to put away our pride and become small. To get through that door we have to become small, like children, and approach him in trust and humility. Christmas is for children: for you and me.
On this holy night, in the year of our Lord 2015, we come again to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, who shines eternally and triumphantly amidst the darkness. As you come to receive him in bread and wine, bow your head in humility, before this great and mighty wonder, ask Christ into your heart, that he may be born in you again, to be the light and the love of your life.
And may you have a truly joyful and blessed Christmas.
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