“Fear not, for I bring glad tidings of great joy…” (Luke 2. 10)
“For the grace of God that makes all things whole has appeared before us, teaching us to live in this present world… but with self-control, in a just and godly way.” (Epistle of Paul to Titus 2. 11, 12b)
If someone invited you to an event that would change the world, is Midnight Mass what you imagine it would look like? A small group of people gathered at an odd hour in a wonderfully strange building off the main road* – one that many others probably pass by with barely a second thought? A place with a table, some seats, a few candles, some books, what for a lot people would be curious symbols… and, in worldly terms, little else?
I mean come on, where are all those wealthy and influential people? Where are the celebrities and the TV cameras? What about the ‘X-factor’? Where are the echoes of something big happening in the corridors of power? Or as kids on a street corner might say: “Going to shake things up are you? Oh yeah…you and whose army?”
Christmas is indeed about turning things upside down. But not in the ways most of us have learned to expect – by getting together all the most important people, for example (as happened in Copenhagen last week), by demanding that someone else does something (not me, thanks very much), or by a display of overwhelming force. All too often, that’s the way of the world, and what a mess it has got us into.
By contrast, the Christ who is born quietly, humbly, almost insignificantly on this Holy Night speaks first to ordinary people – like you and me. He begins his revolution by disturbing our certainty, giving us hearts of flesh rather than stone. Then he invites us to join a small company of friends who will go into the world’s darkest places, not with weapons of war and large corporations (as we have seen in the region of Jesus’ birth in recent years), but with something much more costly.
I am talking about simple but life-changing actions like forgiveness, hospitality, reconciliation, the sharing of goods, and human solidarity – what the Bible calls love of neighbour: treating the stranger and even the enemy as you yourself would wish to be treated. This is the way of the Prince of Peace whose coming we celebrate.
What is true of Christ’s challenge to the way we live, the way we relate to each other and the way we see things is also true of the way we understand faith and the way we perceive God. In an often bruised and hurting world, in the midst of the doubt and confusion we all feel, where is God to be found? Not in opulent palaces, not in remote splendour, not in complicated formulas – and not (if you read the gospels) with those who go around boasting about how ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ they are, either. That is some comfort to those of us who count ourselves neither especially smart nor notably righteous!
Instead, according to the topsy-turvy Good News announced to those shepherds, the ordinary working people of the time, God is to be found in the most unlikely of places: in a stable, off the beaten track, and in the vulnerable flesh of a baby born on the edge of empire, miles away from the rich and powerful. It is this Jesus, now lying in a cradle, soon mixing with the crowd, and eventually confronting one of the murderous crosses we have built in the world – it is his life which truthfully embodies who God is, what God is like, and what God’s agenda is about.
To redeploy a phrase from a recent Middle East conflict, there is “shock and awe” in St Luke’s Christmas scene. The shepherds are terrified, confused, baffled. They fear that they are being overcome. But they are not. What they are experiencing is the kind of shock and the type of awe that proclaims peace on earth and goodwill to all, not the kind that reigns bombs or damnation on our heads.
The revolution declared in this child born in Bethlehem is not threatening because it is hideously dominating or impossibly complicated. Quite the reverse. It is frighteningly straightforward – inviting us to flourish together by living with self-control, in a just and godly way, as the letter of Paul to Titus puts it. Sure, we need help to do this (that is what the people sitting around you are for, and what prayer is about). Sure, we will fail and fall (we are human). But what is asked of us for the most part is small deeds of hope, not impossible acts of heroism. It is this everyday faithfulness that, by the grace of God, adds up to something rather bigger than the sum of its parts.
Note that Paul speaks about living “in this world”, not floating off onto a cloud of piety. As Archbishop William Temple reminds us, Christianity is, in this sense, the worldliest of religions. It does not invite us to abandon the flesh, but to see it transformed, changed, and to discover in and through our daily existence, (even the toughest bits of it) a quality of life which can only be described as eternal – not because it is imperishable or invulnerable on its own terms, but because it is a gift of the God from whom all life comes and to whom all life returns.
Perhaps in the coming year it is someone you are close to who will show you this through what we might call a ‘Christly gesture’ – some action which speaks to you of abiding love in the face of difficulty or tragedy. Or perhaps it will come to you through the kindness of a stranger. The important thing is to be looking out for these small but significant moments, not to be forever fixated on occasions of despair.
So life re-shaped by giving is what Christ’s advent heralds for us. Though Christmas can easily become overburdened by shopping, it is good to be reminded that before God we are not consumers. Rather, we are people who exist and grow by sharing bread, wine and peace – not just around the altar, but (if we are serious) in the home, the school, the workplace and the high street. For there also we meet Christ – or perhaps not, if we look in the wrong places, or if we are wrapped up in ourselves.
One final Christmas thought. Not so long ago someone was confronted by one of those assertive street preachers who seem rather over-confident that they have God for a personal possession. “Have you invited Jesus into your life?” he demanded of her. “No”, she replied quietly, “Jesus has invited me into his life.”
That’s the revolution of the nativity in a nutshell. God comes to us in the flesh and helps us to see that only by letting go of our desire to control other people and other things can we receive the joyous free gift of life that is God’s very self – and that is found to be nothing less than a new birth.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. *This is an address given at St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Bethnal Green, East London, for the Midnight Mass liturgy on 24 December 2009. See: www.st-matthews.co.uk
The rector at St Matthews is Kevin Scully, who contributed a chapter to Ekklesia’s book Consuming Passion (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005). The church was visited in 2009 by the Ship of Fools website ‘Mystery Worshipper’, who comments favourably upon his experience here: www.ship-of-fools.com/mystery/2009/1790.html