And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch
Throughout my life, Christmas has been one of the highlights of the year, particularly when I was a child. Was it the festive church services that made it all so special? Well, if I am totally honest, I think the answer would be no, not really. It was the family atmosphere, the special food and the Christmas cake, but most especially waking up on Christmas morning and wondering what presents there were to be unwrapped. Yes, the day was full of expectation, joy, and family love. Going to church was part of this celebration, but it was the physical reality of the secular celebration that made the day really special.
Now you might find that a shocking admission from someone who is/ was your parish priest and was brought up in a vicarage household. It might sound as if it was a betrayal of the centrality of the Christian Gospel in the shaping of our lives. But I just wonder if this degree of honesty is actually a call to strip away some of the sideshows of what we take as the Christian Gospel and discover the real significance of Christmas for our lives.
Just take a step back and ask a few questions about what is recorded about the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. First, the details of the birth of Jesus are not recorded in either the Gospel of Mark or in John. These two Gospel writers didn’t think it was either important enough to record or the details had not been remembered by them. The name of Jesus’ earthly father is not noted by Mark and John doesn’t mention the name of Jesus’ mother. So, in two of the Gospels the birth and early years of Jesus’ life are not seen as being particularly significant to the Gospel to be communicated.
It is true that both Matthew and Luke name both Jesus’ earthly father and mother and both give an account of his birth, but there are some major differences between the two accounts. The way the two Gospels handle the material around Jesus’ birth indicate a considerable overlay of theology built up around Jesus’ birth. In Matthew there is a desire to show Jesus’ birth is special in nature but also rooted in the past associated with the people of Israel. In Luke, Jesus’ birth is also seen as miraculous, but two themes seem to shape the story; namely the failure of the established leaders of the nation’s religion to be able to believe the word of God in action (Zechariah not believing the angel in the Holy of Holies) and the reconciliation of past hurts as Simeon greets Jesus, Joseph’s son (recall the enmity between Joseph and Simeon in Genesis 42). Both Matthew and Luke see something very special is associated with the birth of Jesus, but it seems in all four Gospels it is not the details of Jesus’ birth that are of primary importance and needs to be celebrated, it is something much greater than this.
I believe the that primary importance of the Christmas celebration is neatly captured in the words of John… “The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the Glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. This is the heart of our faith about the birth of Jesus, that his very presence and life display the nature and love of God in material form. So rather than scoff and make tut-tutting noises about the secular Christmas celebrations, maybe we should recognise they have a point. At Christmas, maybe we should look around afresh at this material world and stop and wonder. For it is the love and glory that we experience in a physical form in this material world, that we see the nature of God most fully. It is God’s creation, and it is his gift to us.
Jesus’ life and witness demonstrate how wonderful and beautiful this world can be when we open our eyes to see God’s glory and grace in his creation. Yes, let’s give thanks for the opening of our eyes to this truth and make the celebration of Christmas something which is truly glorious and inclusive. In this way, maybe we are on the point of recognising God’s presence more fully in the midst of his most wonderful creation that he has given us to enjoy.
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