Sermon for 24th December 2011

Christmas Day (Eve)

It was nearly Christmas and everyone in the school was in a festive, end-of-term mood. In the art class the teacher announced, to the children’s delight, that they’d be making Christmas cards for their friends and families. Out came the red and green paint, the glue, the glitter and the cotton wool, and all the children busied themselves producing colourful pictures of Father Christmas, robins, holly, snow and stars.

Abby was especially happy with her picture of the nativity scene, complete with ox and ass. She’d decided to make the card to cheer up her Great-Aunt Jean, who’d be spending Christmas with the family, and who always seemed a bit miserable and humourless. So she finished off the card with a flourish, writing a special message beneath the picture. She was using a broad paintbrush and she didn’t have enough room to write “Merry Christmas”, so she compromised by painting, in bold red letters, “Merry Xmas, Aunt Jean”.

At last Christmas Eve came and Aunt Jean arrived, and the family was sitting down for a cup of tea. Abby’s mother nudged her daughter, who was suffering from a sudden fit of shyness. But Abby overcame her nerves and went to fetch the card. Presenting it to Jean, she smiled sweetly and said: “Happy Christmas – I made this for you at school.” You could hear a pin drop as the elderly spinster rummaged in her bag for her spectacles, which she perched on the end of her nose to examine the card. Then she smiled and said, “It’s beautiful, Abby, thank you.” Abby breathed a sigh of relief, but in the next moment her joy turned to dismay, as Jean continued: “There’s just one thing, though, Abby. It would have been better to write ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Xmas’, because when you write 2‘Xmas’, you’re crossing out Christ.”

Of course, there are always folk who are ready to criticise despite the overwhelming good. They will pick up on the one thing that is not quite right. This was devastating for Abby and needlessly so. Does it really matter? Surely it was the gesture that was so much more important than the use of incorrect phraseology if that is what it is. I’m not sure that it is particularly important and who says you shouldn’t use Xmas instead Christmas in the first place. Surely, then, Christmas is a time to show love, support and concern for one another. Looking for the good and not the faults. But we often miss the point in favour of living out our expectations for a perfect Christmas, as we celebrate the word made flesh.

It’s clear that God’s Word has far greater power and deeper significance than we can ever grasp and is, at the end of the day, utterly beyond the reach of linguistic description or human comprehension. Whether we use one word or the other, xmas or Christmas, or, as in Johns gospel, The Word. And yet we keep trying to define and describe it. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul advises against “wrangling over words”, because, he says it “does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (2:14).

Ultimately, as Paul says, “the Word of God is not chained” (2:8). All the scholars and theologians can do is produce words about a word which means “word”! When you read the wrangles over some of the finer points of the liturgy, particularly those in the Creed, it’s hard to understand just how people could become drawn into such bitter arguments for the sake of a single word. That’s not to say that all the efforts of scholars and theologians are futile – the results can be both illuminating and beautiful in themselves – but we must always keep sight of the fact that we are incapable of chaining such a great mystery. We continue to miss the point and very often fail to live out God’s will in so doing. For example, I read a recent story of a colleagues experience last year at a carol service in Salisbury Cathedral. There was a very quiet moment in the service which was pierced by the sound of a crying baby. Some seated behind my colleague was heard to say huffily to her neighbour “They shouldn’t bring children to services like this”. But what is Christmas about if it is not about a baby crying in the night? God with us in the form of a child and the lady missed the point because she was concerned about herself.

Actually, we do a lot of that in the church. We forget whose church it is and try and create a church which is something that we want for ourselves and forget others and what might be Gods will. Who is to say who the church is is for? Is it for the faithful regulars or for those who attend hatches, matches and dispatches or even less during a year? Is it for the rich who can pay their way or for the poor who struggle in life? Is it for the fit and healthy or the sick? Is it for the young people who might make a few noises or the the more senior well-behaved folk? Well actually the truth of the matter is the church is for everyone, young or old, rich or poor. It is our church, not mine or a few senior members of the church laity. It is our church and the Jesus Christ is the host. And if we can begin to remember that then we can put our approach to such events as Christmas in to a proper perspective. And the proper perspective for me is that we love one another as God loves us.

This is a very contemporary version of a piece of scripture which famously reminds us that love is our greatest gift from God, it puts it into a particular perspective for Christmas:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend la myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband. Love is kind, though harried and tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will endure for ever and ever.

Poor little Abby, whose generous gesture only met with disapproval! Poor Aunt Jean, whose problem was that she didn’t know how to talk to children, how to show love to her family and resorted to strictness. In the end Abby’s mother managed to reassure the little girl that she hadn’t done anything wrong – and they had a very happy Christmas – or Xmas, or Noel – or whatever you choose to call it. Actually you could argue we shouldnt use the word Merry but rather Happy instead. But the bottom line is that the occasion is bigger than its name. Of all the presents you will receive today, there remains one more beautiful than anything you’ll find under the tree – the most tantalising of all. But this particular gift will remain wrapped for as long as you or I live – because it’s wrapped in the mystery of the Word made flesh – God incarnate. That is the mystery which shone out of that Bethlehem stable on the first Christmas Day, whose light shines undimmed, never to be overcome by the darkness but to shine out in love for each and every one of us.

If Aunt Jean was offended by using a Cross instead of Christmas I wonder if she was more offended by the use of the cross at Easter. Or perhaps she has missed the point.

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