Unwrapping the Christmas Child
Only a few days after Christmas and already we are being asked to unwrap what the birth of this both ordinary and unique baby means. In our gospel story this Sunday (RCL Luke 2:22-40) Jesus is eight days old and two very important but ordinary things are happening. That is, Mary is being presented at the temple for ritual cleansing after the birth of a child; and for a first born son an offering is being made to God to give thanks for his birth (in a sense to claim him as the firstborn is to understood that he will be God’s in a special way). Both of these activities were normal for observant Jewish people of this time.
But in this infant Simeon and Anna, prophets, recognise the divine promise of the anointed one, Messiah. The story, although polished and pointed in letting us know that this is the Son of God, also retains some of the raw drama of new parents who both know but do not understand the enormity of what has happened. They are amazed. We have a very human story with a very divine purpose.
As so often it is our friend St Paul who translates what the life of Jesus means to those of us, who like Paul, come after the time of the historical Jesus. Paul says it this way: “... born of a woman, born under the law ” This child who we look back to as no less than God made flesh, was fully and ordinarily human. Born of flesh, born with all the limitations and restrictions of human flesh and law. And given an ordinary Jewish name, and initiated into his Jewish religion in all the usual ways – named and circumcised on the eight day according to the law of his people and his time.
While the stories of his last three years are full of amazing teachings and healings and of course his eventual arrest, trial, death and resurrection, most of his life was so fully human, so ordinary that virtually no trace remains. He became fully human not only for a moment but for a life time – a life lived much like other lives. As the carol says he knows our gladness and our sadness. And I read into this that he knows not only our highs and lows but the task, and sometimes drudgery, sometimes simple joy, of the long years of repetitious acts of daily living, of attending to work and relationship. No wonder that when his life is recorded in some detail there is so much talk of eating and drinking and conversing with ordinary people full of ordinary concerns and heartaches. Jesus, I believe, knew this territory of human life well and was genuinely concerned with families in which children were ill, the bread winner dying, adults relegated to life outside full human society because of blindness or lameness or leprosy. He responded to and healed the ordinary folk to full ordinary life, to the fullness of the human condition as he knew and enjoyed it himself.
“ ... in order to redeem those who were under the law ...” This is a passage which is often read in a legalistic manner as divine payment for the shortcomings of the human race, of buying back one who is in slavery. And I want to acknowledge that this is part of the tradition's understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ life. Yet for me this is not so much a wrong understanding but too small an understanding, only a part of what is being claimed. In the context of this passage, which is so filled with tenderness and overwhelming love, I think a great deal more is being said.
For Paul the law is not so much wrong as it is impossible and life in Jesus is freedom from the law. Not a license to be careless of others or reckless in our own lives but a freedom to be governed by the gift of love and the task of loving others as ourselves. Paul often describes the law as a tutor or guardian until we reach adulthood or here until we have been adopted as children of God, as co heirs with Jesus.
“ ... so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ ...” And here we have the tender hearted impulse behind the incarnation, behind all this God becoming human – the desire of the creator to be at one with creature, the desire of the divine father and cosmic mother to enfold the child in loving arms, the desire of the beloved to behold the loved one.
The birth of Jesus, God with us, is the ultimate expression of that same urgent love which drove creation, which burst into word through the prophets and mystics, which led a people out of slavery and accompanied them through exile, which was announced to a young woman and a confused man, which beckoned ordinary men and women into an intimate life with God they couldn’t have imagined. And continues to do so.
At this Christmas time of year maybe we can get in touch with some of the depth and breadth and helplessly unstoppable love we have for others. Of course for those with whom we share our life and shared values and traditions, those whom it is easy and rewarding to love. But also for those with whom we are not in easy relationship.
During the lead up to this Christmas and in the days since, like every year, I have heard stories of wonder filled family reunions and joy. And I have heard and seen and experienced for myself maybe more stories about Christmases more ordinary and gritty – the ones we haven’t been able to catch up with, the families still recently bereaved and struggling to celebrate a once happy festival with loved ones missing, old wounds stalking the dinner conversations, financial distress etc Our readings this morning yet again tell us that Christmas is not only for the successful and cheerful, it is also, or even more so for the ordinary, the broken, the hopeful but struggling, those in need of good news.
Because all of this talk of love and kinship is not simply warm feelings toward our immediate favourites, although it certainly includes our nearest and dearest. The Old Testament prophets often spoke of the loving-kindness of God - one word – which was a powerful and practical expression of the love of God which we understand to have come to full expression in Jesus. God’s love was always expressed in justice, mercy and abundant life. If we want to proclaim with our lips that the birth of this child is about “love coming down at Christmas” then we need to proclaim with our actions justice, mercy and abundant life for all.
As we enjoy these days in between Christmas and secular New Year we can remember that it is all part of the Christmas season of twelve days which will not end until the wise ones, the magi, have arrived and given their gifts, so we have an opportunity to contemplate our new year’s resolutions in terms of what can I do that is more just, more merciful, more inviting of abundance into my life and the life of all on this planet who are now my co-heirs with Christ.
Suddenly this is no longer an exercise in nice fluffy feelings but urgently about how we live every aspect of our life from: As I look into the face of my neighbour am I looking for that glimmer of the divine and how does that impact on how I treat them? What are we planting in our garden literally and metaphorically that will bear shoots of love, justice, mercy and peace? So as we rest and work, reflect and chill out in these quiet days may we be nudged and called into life even more abundant for us, for those we love particularly, and for all whom God loves (which is everyone).
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come in our time.