It is traditional at Christmas time to stand in the pulpit and berate a congregation about how the true meaning of Christmas has been forgotten in the midst of all the commercialisation and general hedonism at this time of year.
It is especially appropriate at the midnight service on Christmas Eve with the back rows swaying gently in an alcoholic haze having just come in from the Cock Inn.
The congregation looking to get the God bit out of the way to leave more time for eating and drinking on Christmas day.
But I know I am addressing the hard core this morning.
Parents who insist on taking their children to church on Christmas Day – some of whom even have to delay opening their presents until they get home from church!
But I do have some sympathy with the traditional fulminating clergyman.
Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer (what’s that got to do with anything?),
Singing santas and dancing snowmen
at least we seem to have got rid of lametta – terrible stuff which you find for months afterwards in odd places.
What has this to do with the lowly birth of the infant Jesus who would grow up to profoundly change the world?
But then the traditional Christmas has its share of nonsense
We sang at the carol service this year:
“I saw three ships come sailing by”- is Bethlehem on sea? I believe the nearest mass of water is the Dead Sea about 20km away
How about “We three kings of orient are”. Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar are good for Christmas quizzes but try to find them in the Bible.
The point is that we have always gone a bit overboard on celebrating Christmas but now that we are in the third year of recession and the shops have fewer customers buying less than before – those days of great excess now seem like a bit of a golden age, albeit a fairly shallow one.
Because Christmas is about feeling good, and celebrating
And how do we celebrate at Christmas? We decorate our houses, we sing special songs (Carols); we bake special cakes, we light candles, we give each other presents. This all seems a lot like how we celebrate a Birthday.
And that is not surprising because it is a birthday. We are celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ. You can see a picture of him in the window at the east end of this church.
Amazing fact number one – we are celebrating the birthday of this person 2,000 years ago – whom we see here hanging from a cross as he is dying, being executed for sedition and blasphemy.
His message that all people – Jews, Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, Englishman, Welshmen, Scots, even Canadians – are all equal in the sight of God and equally loved by God was so dangerous that it had him killed – but this message, once so revolutionary is now the basis of all our morality in the western world.
Unlike a normal Birthday at Christmas we give each other presents.
Why do we do this?
On the one hand we are celebrating the gift by God of his son Jesus to save us from the slavery of the old religions – with all of their restrictive rules and hierarchies.
As we heard in Isaisah 9:6
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
And I love the fact that this celebration of Christmas is bigger than any birthday – in fact it is bigger than all birthdays put together
But there is more than this
Let us for a moment unwrap “birthday presents” – if you will excuse the pun.
Why do we give presents on a birthday normally?
– to make the other person feel special
– to show our appreciation for them
Yet on Jesus’s birthday we give presents to each other.
– why is that?
Because Jesus’s message is that we are all special – all important – all loved and in return we should love one another. So we should all give each other presents
That’s why the presents are important – because they are part of the message – we are all important – all special – all loved – and we should all love one another
But there’s more: there are two more senses of present – both of which are relevant here.
In the autobiographical “Cider with Rosie” Laurie lee tells of his first day at school when he is told by his teacher “sit down and wait there for the present”. He waited all day for the present that never came.
Well that was a bit like those early Christians who were waiting for Christ to come again and they would still be waiting to this day.
Because they missed the point– Advent is finished – the waiting is over – God is with us right now. The gift of Jesus Christ is given to us in the present time – not in the future.
I said it is all about the presents and this takes us on to the third sense of present which is relevant here – the sense of being present.
We sing in our Christmas hymns: “O come, O come Emmanuel”. Matthew quoting Isaiah tells us that Emmanuel means God with us.
And it is the presence of God with us right now which is the greatest gift of Christmas. Whenever we have need of God’s love – it is there – accessible to all – God is with us and within us, now and throughout our lives.
A presence which we will celebrate and share together in our Eucharist this morning as we rejoice in Christ’s continuing presence with us symbolised in shared bread and wine.
As I approach the altar I always look up to the picture of the crucified Christ and feel at once entirely unworthy but also entirely justified in the knowledge that I am not expected to be perfect but only to love as I am loved.
Let us remember what we have been given this Christmas – love, forgiveness, the opportunity to start each day afresh and think about what we might give back in the coming year.
Let us take that presence and that love home with us and share it with our families and friends and everyone we meet – not just this Christmas but for the whole year.
But above all let us “keep the feast”, enjoy the giving and receiving of presents and rejoice because the man looking down upon us from the cross at the end of our church represents a very special present to us and presence with us – then, now and always.
A very happy Christmas to you all
Chris Hancock 25th December, 2011