Christmas Eve 11.30pm 2019
Isaiah 52.7-10 John 1.1-14
According to Luke, Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea, where Jesus was born. John doesn’t mention any town. He talks about the world instead. ‘The true light… was coming into the world’. No particular location.
Which do you prefer for yourself? Are you first and foremost a citizen of the world? A creature of the earth? A member of the human race? Or is your primary identity your nationality or birthplace or language? Are you cosmopolitan, a European at least? Or are you English, or a northerner, or even a Dabber?
You say, does it have to be a choice? A fair point, but the political turmoil of our nation in recent years has been largely about the tension between the two. And that kind of tension is at the heart of much of the unrest or conflict evident wider in Europe and across the world.
How can we live together as one people on earth yet also value the distinct traditions of individual places and communities? Is the only way to peace the bland uniformity implied by John Lennon – Imagine there’s no countries? It’s very hard to do. Can you even imagine Crewe and Nantwich becoming one town under one name?
Maybe Christmas can show us a different way. Luke tells of the baby of Bethlehem, and Jesus of Nazareth – particular places. John shows us the light of the world – a universal presence. Must these be in competition, or can we hold both together?
Think of a nativity you’ve seen recently. Maybe the final tableau at a school or church play, or the images on some Christmas cards. They combine the stories of Luke and Matthew. Mary, Joseph, the holy child, with shepherds, wise men and animals. A lovely heart-warming middle-eastern scene, but does it tell the mystery revealed by John, that here is the light of the world?
The 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt has been commemorated this year. There are two paintings in his name entitled ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, both from 1646, one in Munich and the other in the National Gallery. The latter is set in the dark interior of a barn in the depth of winter. In the background you can faintly see an ox and an ass. Mary sits facing us with the child in front of her in the straw of the manger. Joseph stands to her left, with shepherds gathered to form a circle around the child.
The miracle is in the light. Look closely and you notice that the faces of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds are lit up. One of the shepherds is holding a lamp, but that’s eclipsed by a greater light. It is the baby at the centre of the circle whose whole body is a brilliant lantern giving light and warmth to all around. In this barn, if you want to see and be seen, you must draw near to the child. Stand away and you only make out shapes, and fear the unknown. Step nearer and you are recognised, and you recognise the humanity of others.
The light shines in the darkness. Rembrandt paints both Luke and John. This baby has been born in a very specific place and time on earth. But its light is the eternal, uncreated light of God.
In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… And the Word was made flesh.
This child is God the Son, the origin of all places and times, and present to all places and times. And this child is Jesus, a first century Nazarene Jew.
The darkness is not where we have to be. Everything there is drained of colour, differentiated only by degrees of greyness. When totalitarian, globalizing forces suppress the differences and individualities of peoples and cultures and nations, that’s a darkening. At the same time, darkness breeds suspicion of the other because of fear of the unknown.
So it is essential that we are alert to the dangers of nationalism, racism and hatred at each end of the political spectrum. Yet the more internationally-minded of our society should be careful not to dismiss as prejudiced bigots all those who in the election and referendum expressed concern for a loss of national and local community identity and a distrust of distant government.
God didn’t become incarnate as a citizen of the world, but as a Jew. And yet from the depth of his being shone the light which may in every part of the world bring into view the extraordinary variety of colour and texture of its peoples and places.
Rembrandt understood this and, as Neil MacGregor observes, he painted his nativity in a Dutch barn with the visitors looking more like Dutch fisher folk than shepherds.
Jesus didn’t come to make us all look like first century Judeans. His creative light will make you more 21st century, more Nantwich, more English, more Welsh, more John Smith, more Mary Jones. Whatever it is to be authentically you.
We should believe it is possible for us to be different peoples, and for us to be able to live together in the world, because it is the same infinite, universal light which gives us being and enables us to see each other.
God didn’t become human in general. If it is only humanity in general that is of worth, then it doesn’t matter if we lose a small part of it. It’s a replaceable commodity.
If however, it really happened, two thousand years ago, in the fields of Bethlehem, that a Judean teenager named Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, what then? What difference would it make to how people lived? What difference would it make, for example, to the ancient practice of exposing unwanted infants? It meant that a saint like Macrina in the 4th century would tour refuse sites during a famine in Cappadocia, rescuing babies and raising them as her own. She saw something divine in the work of saving the unique glory of the sickliest daughters of the lowest of slaves.
The worth of every human being. The common light in which we are held. There is no way to hold these together other than by faith in the incarnation.
Yet to many it is an obstacle to faith that Christianity hangs on the particular historical events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. How can we fact-check the nativity and all that follows? We can’t, at least not to the satisfaction of the most sceptical minds. But John isn’t calling us to settle an intellectual question. He says, ‘to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’.
And to believe is to trust. To believe is to live as if it’s true. That’s not to suppress our rational thinking. It’s a recognition that when it comes to our deepest commitments in life, a hard scientific logic won’t get us anywhere. We know that from our relationships with each other.
John calls us to draw near to the light. He says, ‘Try it and see. Put yourself in the nativity. Come and worship. Let the light and love of Christ change how you see others and how you are seen. Become yourself, treasuring all those roots and affiliations which make your identity. View others without fear, knowing that it is the same infinite source of light and love which fires all things into life.’
Let us therefore draw near this holy night, in Holy Communion, that we also may testify: The Word became flesh, and we beheld his glory.