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A few days before Christmas, two young brothers were spending the night at their grandparent's house. When it was time to go to bed, and anxious to do the right thing, they both knelt down to say their prayers.
Suddenly, the younger one began to pray in a very loud voice.
"Dear Lord, please ask Santa Claus to bring me a play-station, a mountain-bike and a telescope."
His older brother leaned over and nudged his brother and said, "Why are you shouting your prayers? God isn't deaf."
"I know" he replied, "But Granny is."
When you were little did you have a picture book of Bible stories? You can still get them, full of illustrations and I can still see them in my minds eye when the familiar stories are read again. I remember my mum reading to me the Christmas story and showing me the pictures. There were shepherds, excited bearded men in bathrobes and furry vests, surrounded by fluffy white lambs. And there against the starry night was an angel – Looked like a lovely young woman in a long, long, pale blue dress with enormous feathery wings and rays of light surrounding her blonde head.
But I got confused when I turned to another picture of an angel in my Bible storybook. This angel was implacably standing guard at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve skulked miserably away. This angel had long blond hair, too, but he also carried an immense sword, as big as he was and, what was more, the sword was on fire. Who could understand such a thing? That luxuriant mane of blond curls and those mighty arms, that flaming sword? Such incontrovertible evidence of masculinity and femininity in one contradictory body was too much for me at the age of five, so I decided to turn back to the Christmas page.
"...and the angel said unto them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you glad tiding of great joy, which shall be to all people,'"
Why on earth would the angel say ‘don’t be afraid?’. Who could be afraid of such a pretty woman? I guess they hadn’t seen an angel before, but this angel was hardly scary.
And as we listen to the Christmas story as we do year by year, the old words wash over us—already familiar, even to me at that young age, 63 years ago. Even then it was already an old story, a story that made us feel comfortable and safe, already a story full of the reassurance and safety for which everyone longs at this time of year. Already we had begun to do what Christians have been doing with this story for centuries: domesticating it, making it warm and fuzzy, cushioning it in candy floss, almost into a kind of fairy story with a moral in it, but increasingly unbelievable.
But in fact of course it is a story that is full of fear. From the moment of the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, when the angel visited her 9 months before Jesus birth to tell her that she was to have a baby, and when Mary asked the perfectly logical question of her heavenly visitor—"How shall this be?"—to the tense negotiations around the possibility of Joseph divorcing Mary on grounds of infidelity, to the desperate search for suitable lodgings in Bethlehem at the most vulnerable moment in a woman's life, the very moment of childbirth, the birth of Christ had from the outset been a very precarious thing. It was anything but smooth. Anything but reassuring. Not a thing about it suggested that this was going to be safe. It was a scary situation, one that required great faith in God.
Mary and Joseph, the way they looked in my Bible picture book: she so sweet and calm and young; he older, but also calm, strong and dependable and reassuring—they are kind of sanitized and unreal. I don’t think Mary and Joseph were like that. The birth of Christ was, in its human dimension, a profound story about extraordinary trust in God in the face of terrible adversity: marginal people in an occupied country coping with a difficult and uncertain situation. Only now, after it is over, do we see reassurance in it. What they knew must have been pretty fearful.
When we find ourselves anxious and fearful, does that mean that our faith has abandoned us? Are fear and faith incompatible? I don't think so. Fear and courage are certainly not incompatible: it takes no courage at all to endure something of which you are not afraid. A hero is someone who stands firm even though he is afraid, a person who accepts her fear and goes ahead and does it anyway. [Do we think that Rosa Parks all those years ago was not afraid when she refused to yield her seat on the bus to a white man? That Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not afraid when he accepted martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis? That Nelson Mandela was not afraid?] When we face times of trouble and uncertainty and feel the chill of fear in our hearts, does that fear mean that we are not people of faith? Not at all—it just means we have something pretty powerful to pray about, right then and there. That we need to pause, be still and wait on God, to do what we do very time we come to communion, -remember! ‘Do this to remember me’ says Jesus. Oh yes, of course Lord, because I keep forgetting! Love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death. So be not afraid, trust in the one who offers us the bread of life and the cup of salvation always at every moment of our existence.
I don’t know what happened to that Bible picture book. I do know that the pictures and the soft and malleable interpretation of the story of the birth of Jesus are still trapped in my memory. But I have moved on in my understanding, and so must we all if there is to be anything of lasting value in what we are about as we listen to these readings today and these lovely carols.
This evening we are celebrating in word and song the defining moment in human history, when the very nature of what it means to be human is revealed. In this birth we begin the journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb. The drama unfolding before us is about us, is about our destiny. The word is made flesh, and we can lift up our hearts and face our fears for the reality is that death and destruction, evil and the forces of hatred will not and cannot have the last word. Against all the odds, in the midst of our own fear and failing, in our grief and sorrow and indeed anger at what is displayed on our TV screens in the nightly news, in the harshness, in the danger and delight of our human existence, here in this birth we so surround with mystic and candy floss, is the very salvation of all that we truly long for, of all that our human spirit yearns for. So indeed, hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.