Christmas Reflection 2021
It’s good news time again. You might think that it’s all beginning to wear a bit thin, but don’t forget 8-year-old Isaac from Stoke-on-Trent who recently asked his family not to give him birthday presents, but to donate items instead gifts to a local centre for homeless people. And remember the story of Big Ginge, the cat who was re-united last month with his delighted owners after a gap of 10 years. There is always good news to celebrate and Christmas can give us all an excuse to stop and think what truly good news might mean for each of us.
Good news, of course, is what the angels brought to the shepherds in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus. They spell it out: a saviour has been born who will fulfil the dreams of Isaiah the prophet and many subsequent generations of Jewish folk.
Luke’s first readers would have read all this with a wry smile. They would have been all too familiar with the ‘good news’ of a saviour and lord who was about to inaugurate an age of peace. It was proclaimed with gusto by the Roman state. It wasn’t, of course, anything to do with Jesus, but was a celebration of the Emperor Augustus’s birthday.
Luke was well aware of what he was doing. One of the recurrent themes of his good news, which is precisely what ‘gospel’ means, is that he draws a contrast between the good news brought by Jesus and the claims of the contemporary political powers. It’s a contrast that still gives us profound pause for thought, even though the political leaders of our day, by and large, don’t use quite the same language that Augustus did.
The story of the birth of Jesus is dense with symbolism. It’s a story told to ring bells with us and to make us think – even if not all of the bells ring quite as loudly or clearly as they might once have done. For example, the very presence of shepherds in the story of the birth of a significant new leader would have seemed reassuringly familiar to those who knew the tales of shepherds at other significant births in the ancient world.
There are quite a number of examples of this, but one of the most striking, perhaps, is the story of the birth of the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus. They were adopted by a shepherd called Faustulus and grew, like the great Jewish hero and king, David, tending flocks, as shepherds in their own right.
There are many other in symbolic cultural prompts placed by Luke in his story to arouse the imaginations of his readers, but even those of us who, let’s be honest, no longer ‘get’ them as readily his first readers might have done face the same questions, and most especially: what counts as good news? And, what does all this mean for us?
On a superficial level, Christmas good news may be little more than a moment of welcome respite from the relentless gloom of the pandemic and the climate crisis. Surely this is one big reason why the powers that be of our own age have been so keen to ‘save Christmas’?
On a deeper level, Luke’s big theme of the contrast between the what the movers and shakers of our day offer and what Jesus offers still holds good.
And let’s be honest, the answer to that isn’t as immediately plain as we might like to think. One of the most telling verses in Luke’s story is that Mary, ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ Their meaning was not self-evident and would only become gradually and sometimes painfully clear as her son’s extraordinary life unfolded and then exploded on the cross.
Their meaning for us also only begins to become clear when we resolve to go with Luke and with one another on a journey with Jesus. This is a journey, we might say, of faith, a journey which has no clear destination and is often marked by doubt and uncertainty as well as by hope, excitement and by joy.
In fact, it’s largely true that we can find meaning in this story only when we try to live differently because of it. Just stopping and thinking won’t get us very far. Like the shepherds we have to go and see.
A couple of years ago, at the end of a rather different sermon, when we had no idea what was just around the corner for our world, I quoted the words of Howard Thurman, an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. They get to the heart of what it means to go and see – and to be moved to act differently as a result of what we find:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
Over the last two years I have seen our communities here do just this – though the nature of our hunger and imprisonment may not be quite what Thurman might have had in mind. And that’s precisely the point. The poetry in the Christmas story may have been earthed in a foreign, largely forgotten culture, but it still has the power to inspire, to heal and bring us all the good news we crave.