Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Uncommonness of the Common: Reflections on the Nativity (Christmas Eve 2017)

The Uncommonness of the Common
Reflections on the Nativity

Christmas Eve
24 December 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Luke 2.1-20

            2.1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

            8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

            15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A word from the present
         Almost every day I begin my morning by reading the on-line international edition of The Guardian.  On Saturday morning one article caught my eye:  ‘Mary had a baby.  So did I.  Neither of us needed wise men.’  The author, Nell Frizzell, was reflecting on her recent experience of childbirth in the light of the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Let me share with you the opening paragraph of her op-ed piece.

         The tale of the nativity changes after you’ve had a baby.  No longer is this the seasonal story of a prophecy-made-man on a hillside in Galilee.  It is not the visitations of angels or shining stars or even the [virgin birth] that strikes you as miraculous.  Rather, what amazes you now is how, in the name of all that’s holy, Mary did it.  This is the story of a young woman wading through insane government admin while hobbling more than 70 miles to her in-laws’, in the final stages of her first pregnancy, before facing an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without a health service. [1]

         What I liked about Frizzell’s often funny but completely serious take on her own experience and Mary’s is that she cut through the layers of history to invite us to look at this familiar story with new eyes.  In Mary and Joseph’s story we are reminded that the ‘uncommonness’ of God comes to us in the ‘commonness’ of human experience.

The Commonness of the Nativity
         For just a moment let’s look at the story of the Nativity from as detached a point a view as possible.

         A young woman, probably in her teens, becomes pregnant even though she is engaged to a young craftsman.  This young man is faced with a difficult choice.  He can reject her and let her suffer the consequences of giving birth to a child out of wedlock or he can marry her, adopt the child as his own and endure the raised eyebrows of his neighbours. 

         If this situation isn’t difficult enough, the Roman imperial authorities decide to undertake a census and require that every citizen of Judea return to their ancestral towns to be registered for tax purposes.  And so the young man and his very pregnant wife travel the seventy miles to Bethlehem and arrive in the midst of a crowd of people all seeking lodging.  Mary and Joseph are lucky; they find a stable, relatively warm with the body heat of the animals.  And there the child is born, born into a world of political tensions, born into a religious society in upheaval, born into a family with memories of greatness but with only prospects of hard work and social strife.

         If, for just a moment, we replace the names of Mary and Joseph with the names of Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar or Syrians refugees in Lebanon and Turkey or the names of Yemenis trying to find safety in the midst of a civil war, then this story is no longer ‘uncommon’ but ‘common’.  At the heart of the Christian story is a story that resonates with human experience over the millennia since Caesar Augustus ordered a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

The Uncommonness of the Nativity
         But we cannot deny that there is also something ‘uncommon’ about the event we celebrate tonight.  It is in the ‘commonness’ of the birth of a child to a young couple trying to make their way in an uncertain and dangerous world that God reveals God’s very self to us.  In this event God extends an invitation to all ‘poor folk and humble’, all the common folk who sometimes wonder what their lives mean, and asks us to allow our lives to be the vehicles for God’s ‘uncommonness’ to make itself known wherever we are, whatever we do and with whomever we find ourselves.

         Mary could have refused to be the bearer of the Christ-child by pleading the stigma of having a child whose father was unknown --- little alone the Creator of the stars of night.  But she did not.  And a young woman becomes the mother of the Word.

         Joseph could have exercised his rights and ended his betrothal to Mary, leaving his honour intact and her ‘dishonour’ visible to all.  But he did not.  And a young man becomes the guardian of the Beloved of God.

         If we were to sit down tonight and read the whole Bible, whether the Hebrew scriptures or the apostolic writings of the first generations of Jesus’ followers, we would discover a constant thread throughout them all.  When God wants something done, God rarely turns to the ‘great and good’.  Abraham and Sarah abandon a settled life in order to seek the fulfilment of a promise to be the forebears of descendants more numerous than there are grains of sand.  Moses runs away from Egypt to escape punishment only to be brought back to lead the people into freedom.  Peter and the other apostles leave their familiar lives behind them to become witnesses to the new life offered to all through Jesus of Nazareth.

         These common people with common lives said ‘yes’ to God when their moment came.  Just like Mary and Joseph, they had no clear vision of where their ‘yes’ would lead them.  And their ‘commonness’ became the vehicle for God’s ‘uncommonness’.

O come, all ye faithful
         For many people, perhaps even for some of us gathered here tonight, the ‘commonness’ of this Christmas celebration obscures what God is doing, right now, right here.  God invites each one of us to offer our ‘commonness’, our souls and bodies, our gifts and flaws, our hopes and fears, our faith and our doubt, to become the means by which the promise of this night, the ‘uncommonness’ of the good news of God in Christ, becomes flesh.

         The incarnation we celebrate this night is two-fold.  We celebrate the Word made flesh in the Christ-child, the son of Mary, the ward of Joseph.  But let us not forget the other incarnation we celebrate, not only tonight but every night and day throughout the year, throughout our lives.  This incarnation is Christ made flesh in us, not only those who follow Jesus but the Christ made flesh in every human being, far and near, friend and stranger, young and not so young.

         When we sing of peace, we are saying to God, ‘Here we are.  Make us channels of your peace.’  When we speak of hope, we are saying to God, ‘Here we are.  Help realize that hope in our times and in our places.’  When we think of ‘comfort and joy’, we are saying to God, ‘Here we are.  Show us the comfortless and the sorrowful that we might serve them.’  We, we common folk, are the stuff of God’s ‘uncommon’ generosity and compassion.

         Just as I began with Nell Frizzell’s first paragraph, I shall end with her last.

         There are young women right now travelling across borders, pregnant and scared, preparing to give birth in camps and sheds, without support or medical care, who are vilified by innkeepers and landlords and all those other heartless gits in pubs who moan about migration and scroungers and the undeserving poor.  There are Marys everywhere, always have been.  And it is our duty to look after them --- because the future is in their loins. [2]

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