Sermon for High Mass of Christmas Day Thursday 24 December 2015
Preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
The Crib on the north wall of the church stands without its central figure for the moment. The manger lies empty and the figure of the infant Christ rests on the altar. At the end of mass it will be carried from there and laid in the manger.
And we, who like the shepherds, have heard the message of the angels, will go ‘even unto Bethlehem’ to see this child whose birth has been announced to us.
This custom of having a Christmas Crib or Crèche, in churches and homes and public places, goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. A few years before his death, he celebrated Christmas in the small Umbrian hill town of Greccio. At a nearby cave he created a living nativity scene. Real people, folk from the town, played the parts of Mary and Joseph and the baby, the shepherds. There was even a real ox and ass.
This simple but brilliant idea has inspired imitations far and wide: in churches and homes, schools and public places; as well as the nativity plays most of us will have taken part in as school children or attended as parents or grandparents.
There is a tradition in Italy, especially in Naples, of elaborate scenes which contain not only the traditional biblical figures but also representations of all sorts and conditions of men, women and children, representing the life of a city or parish community. Some surprising figures have made it into Nativity scenes: one in Naples a few years ago included Silvio Berlusconi – whose private life might qualify him for membership of the Herod dynasty rather than the Holy Family; nearer to home, another at Madame Tussaud’s featured Elvis Presley – dreaming perhaps with Irving Berlin of a white Christmas.
So we might imagine a living Nativity Scene for Margaret Street which would include not just shepherds and wise men– the only shepherds in this parish are the clergy – and you are our sheep. You might hope and pray that your pastors might be good shepherds and wise ones too.
In our nativity scene there would be estate agents and electricians, dress-makers and embroiderers, the Jesus Army and Buddhist nuns (our wise women from the East, they came bearing gifts on Sunday and we will repay the compliment at Chinese New Year), Middle East Airlines – which can’t do flights to the Holy Land, film and TV production staff and recording technicians, language and photography teachers and students, marketing and advertising people, chefs and waiters, bookies and bike-sellers, barmaids and baristas, furniture dealers whose prices would make Joseph the carpenter gasp in amazement, bankers, lawyers and architects, counsellors and therapists, pharmacists and the staff of the blood donor service. And as we celebrate one for whom there was no room at the inn, we should not forget those who sleep in doorways and come here for warmth and shelter when we open up each morning at seven or the refugees seeking a place of peace.
And tonight, we too, from all our varied backgrounds and places, our jobs and relationships, whether we are regular church-goers or occasional ones, whether we were here yesterday and the day before, or have not been to church since the last family wedding or funeral: we are all enrolled in the procession of people who go with the shepherds to see the Christ-child; all of us enlisted as supporting actors in this living Nativity play.
The life of St. Francis was transformed by his encounter and sustained relationship with the humanity of Jesus, from cradle to cross, from birth to passion, in which the love of God reached out to him:
- The well-off merchant’s son becomes the little poor one dependent on the generosity of others;
- The fastidious young man with a horror of the ugly embraces lepers;
- The seeker after military glory seeks to make peace in the fractious cities of his native land between Christians and Muslims;
- The roistering young-man-about-town, drinking and partying with his friends, becomes God’s troubadour who sings God’s praises.
And what of us, who have heard the message of the angels this Christmas? What difference will it make to us? How will be changed when we go back to home and work? Will our ambitions and hopes, our relationships, our homes and communities and work-places, be different? Will we have stayed in the cast, continued in the drama, or slipped quietly back to life as it was before?
One journalist – Peter Wilby – a self-confessed atheist – wrote recently that nothing draws him more to religion than Christmas, not because he loses his ‘atheist faith’ – which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms, but because he hates all the commercial baggage that surrounds the festival.
‘So,’ he says, ‘in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight mass, too, as well as listening…to the broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.’
‘All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning.’
If he listens closely to the story, he might be surprised to hear that is exactly what St. Luke tells is Mary did after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks: ‘She treasured, she pondered, all these things in her heart.’ The difference is that her heart, her very being is devoted to God, and it is only in such a life of total dedication, that we find the meaning of this story. The story is not one from which we can distill, and then discard like Christmas wrapping paper. We can find its meaning and our own only by living it and being changed by it.