Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sermon for the Twelve Days of Christmas

And any other Day of the Year

Christmas Comes Again

There is a modern version of the Carol “Christmas Comes Once More’. So far as I recall it has images of a brightly burning fire round which is gathered a happy family. There are also the stock references to Santa, snow and reindeer. The original version of 1817, originating somewhere in Bavaria has a first verse that goes:

The happy Christmas comes once more

The heavenly Guest is at the door,
The blessed words, the shepherds thrill,
The joyous tidings, peace good will.

It goes on for another five verses tracing in some detail the combined Birth Narratives given us by Matthew & Luke. One must admit that the “jingly” rhyming scheme gets rather tiresome, but the contrast between today’s welcome of Christmas’s coming round again and that of two centuries ago could hardly be more stark.

The secular Christmas is part of the whole system of public holidays which provide a break for working people whom the Romans called them the “plebs”, and each holiday has to have something brand new – a game, a product a “grand slam giveaway” - to cheer up the dreary stretches of life in between; (the Romans called it panem et circuses). Providing the regular spectacles was the responsibility of the Senatorial class, notorious for their graft and greed, but willing to spend vast sums on the Coliseum productions for the political clout that could result.

I leave you to consider any parallels to this Roman history.

Doubtless, this cycle of our public holidays is of great importance to the social fabric and helps people through life in the rather sorry conditions of what is now called the 99%.

In this scenario, Christmas really does go away; it is packed up with the Christmas lights, put out with the discarded fir trees and ruefully contemplated in a “party’s over” mode as the credit card balance is presented.

Christmas Never Went Away

In contrast to this, for committed Christens, Christmas never went away. It is true that the symbols, and what one might call the “props” of the Liturgy, the crèche, the special candles and Christmas banners are stored in some deep place behind the Vestry, but the essential meaning of the Festival is with us always, woven into the very fabric of the life of the Christian Community. Furthermore we do not need something totally different (as the Pythons would say) each year to titillate the senses and relieve our boredom. A dominant theme of the secular Christmas is that everything from medicines to mattresses is “a new formula” or completely new design.

In contrast the Christmas Liturgy is content to make its way each year through the stories of the Nativity. We are not bored with this because it freshens up for us an essential aspect of everyday Christian life that sometimes becomes somewhat forgotten.

Promises of God

This is true of the whole of the annual progression of the Christian calendar, mot clearly understood in the case of the Easter Liturgy. Its particular rites and symbols come and go: any spare Palms are put away; the Paschal candle stick is carefully stored and the text & music for the Exsultet is put in its folder. A central, perhaps the central tenet of Christian belief is that Easter does not go away, but is woven into the fabric of everyday Christian life, and each Sunday Liturgy reminds us of this fact.

The major festivals of the Christian year commemorate historical events of the life of Jesus or the Church. Lying behind this is the central tenet of Judaism, which became central to the Christian tradition: it is that the one constant God is involved in human affairs and acts in historical events. In contrast to all ancient religions before the emergence of the Hebrews Yahweh is not capricious, not likely to fall into a rage because a pinch of incense was missed. To use an O.T. mode of speech, what does anger God, the Prophets clearly saw, was the failure of humans to apply God’s standards of faithfulness and compassion to one another.

This is the historical context of the birth of Jesus. The birth of a baby to an itinerant family is a common experience of humanity. This particular birth remains central to the Christian faith, however, because it proclaims the faithfulness of God to the promises made in the Covenants of Judaism, and to be fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus. The promise “Emmanuel”, God is with us is given concrete content in the teaching and healing work of the Messiah. The blazing truth of this birth, is the promise that the chaos of human life is human doing, not God’s; the promise is that the divine plan will, in the end, prevail over the powers of chaos and darkness that so mar our existence. This is the meaning of Christmas, and this is why Christmas does not go away when we pack up the Liturgical symbols of the Festival.

Christmas and Easter come year after year, but the theological truth they embody is with us always.

Christmas, Lent, Easter, Advent (repeat)

There is, however, one other important Liturgical season lying between Christmas and Easter. The season of Lent reminds us that the final victory only comes after a bitter struggle with the powers of the abyss: greed, hate, the exercise of unbridled power, lying and self-aggrandizement, to note a mere sample of the all too long list.

We see Jesus throughout his life engaged in this struggle, and, from the beginning, individual Christians have known that they are to join with him in the fight with the Christmas assurance that God, in & through Jesus is with us, always until the end (Mt 28.19)

Something the Arch of Canterbury said in his Christmas sermon last year is, I think, relevant here. It caused some ruffled feathers in the Tory press, but the Guardian, that staunch advocate of a liberal position, praised it and made a snide comparison to the Queen’s Christmas message which emphasized the power of Athletics to bring people together.

The Socio/Political Implications

The Archbishop of Canterbury says much the same as I have just said: that Christmas is about the unshakeable love of God for us, and the solidarity of Jesus with humanity.

He suggests, in line with the great Hebrew Prophets, that we think about our own solidarity with our fellow citizens, our own keeping of the social covenant. He goes on (I quote him):

"Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? ….. [W]e can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out. That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load”.

Christmas speaks of “God with us”, specifically in the mission of Jesus who has total solidarity with us. St Paul calls the Church “one Body” in which “if one suffers, all suffer”. So in solidarity with Jesus and one another we go through the trials of Lent, fighting the dark powers; and Easter proclaims that as Jesus the Christ is raised to new life, so we are raised with Him.

It might well be said that as a nation and a global community we are in a deep Lent, and Rowan Williams’ words translate Christian belief into the present challenge, that all members of the community shoulder their fair share of he pain.

One can see why the Conservative press took umbrage, but for those of us who know and live by the truth that Christmas, Lent and Easter do not come and go but are knit into our daily lives, his words makes perfect sense.

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