As I noted previously, there are two perennial truths about the celebration of Christmas. The first is that fewer and fewer in our culture, and particular younger people, know anything of the Christmas story and so are ignorant of the ‘reason for the season.’ But the other truth, less often focussed on, is that many of our Christmas traditions are some way from the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
So the question arises: is it possible to preach or speak in a way which acknowledges tradition and its value, but at the same time seeks to move through or beyond the traditions of Christmas and focus on the actual meaning of Christmas in the New Testament accounts? Here is an outline of my attempt to do so from last Sunday. You might be assured to learn that I did leave the church building unharmed.
(This is an expansion of shorter notes from which I spoke. I was interrupted and ‘corrected’ by my wife, Maggie…)
I love this time of year. All right, not the dark morning and the cold and the wet. But I do love this season. There is something magical about colourful lights in the windows of houses. I know that they probably only cost £3.99 from B & Q—and yet somehow they still speak of warmth and welcome.
I love loves in our public spaces, in our shopping centres. I wonder if it is a sign that there might be not only ‘Glory to God in the highest’ but ‘Glory to God in the High Street.’ I love those quirky Christmas traditions—whose idea was it to bring a tree indoors? It always seems to involve, for me, wielding a saw which was clearly not designed for trimming trees and inevitably sawing one of my fingers. With our new dog Barney in the house, we have added an important new traditions: he get to chew the low-hanging decorations. We have a beautiful, painted Santa who now has splinters where his head used to be!
One tradition, sadly on the wane, is walking the streets singing carols. I remember it as a highlight of Christmas in my youth. Never mind that our fingers were numb holding soggy hymn sheets as the sleet trickled down our necks. There was something wonderfully bonding about singing together—something Gareth Malone has demonstrated so powerfully.
And what about Christmas dinner? The only time of year that we eat turkey—and brussel sprouts. I actually do love sprouts—and not just because they were the reason for the funniest ever moment on the Vicar of Dibley.
Why do we perpetuate these peculiar traditions? Partly because they are fun—they give us a structured excuse for silliness, for doing things we would never otherwise feel we could do. But there is more to it than that. These traditions are important to us because they connect us—they connect us with one another, and they connect us across time, connecting the present with the past—when we first did them—and the future—when we will enact them again.
And, speaking of the past, these traditions are important because they are rooted in an older tradition, that of Joseph with Mary, riding on a donkey to Bethlehem…
Interrupt 1: But you’ve always told us to stick to the stories in the Bible, and not make them up ourselves. There is no donkey in the gospel stories.
Ah, all right. Here we have a picture of Mary and Joseph without a donkey. They were coming to Bethlehem, Luke tells us, because of the census. And because it was busy, there was no room in the inn.
Interrupt 2: Surely that’s very unlikely. If I had relatives in the area, I would offer them hospitality, not send them off to an inn. And that’s even more likely in first century Palestine. In that culture hospitality is everything
Well, what are we going to do about the manger then—the animal food trough. Luke clearly says that ‘They laid him in a manger.’
Interrupt 3: Yes, that’s because animals kept in the house.
What about the inn then? Are you going to take that away as well?
Interrupt 4: you’ve said on your blog (!) that the word doesn’t mean inn. It means guest room. It’s all happening in a home.
(Improvised…It’s not very nice being contradicted is it? Being told that the traditions you have believed aren’t actually true…)
Of course, Maggie is right. Here (picture) is a typical house of the time, and you can see the living space, the guest room, and the animals.
This all highlights the problem with traditions. They might be good and important at times—but you get locked into them, and they are hard to escape. We are not allowed to ask questions of them or challenge them. If you don’t believe me, ask the Vicar who told the primary school assembly that Father Christmas did not exist!
And there is a second problem with traditions: sometimes they are wrong and damaging. That great traditions, of giving presents to one another, is at root based on the giving of gifts by the ‘wise men’, and ultimately of God giving us the gift of his son in the incarnation. And yet this has become something that can cause harm as we are caught up in a glut of consumerism. Justin Welby commented last week in the Radio Times:
Drawing up a list of people for whom one feels obliged to buy presents can induce a gnawing anxiety. Expensive gifts must be lavished, we are told, on immediate family, extended family, Godchildren – not to mention the office Secret Santa. And then there’s the price of Christmas social activities: the ice-skating, the office restaurant meals, the pantomimes for the kids.
All wonderful things – but they come with a price tag attached. It’s no surprise that January can be a cruel month when it comes to finances as credit card bills land on the doormat and the cash machine informs us we have exceeded the overdraft limit.
You don’t need a large bank balance, or a stratospheric credit card limit, to show generosity. You can be generous in way that shows love and affection, rather than trying to buy it.
And what about the food. No-one will admit that turkey is just not as nice as chicken! And let’s be honest: how many of your really like brussel sprouts!
This leads to the third problem with traditions: traditions cement in our memories the pain of the past and highlight the pain of the present. I can still remember the year, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, when my sister promised she would not buy me any presents. If she can make a promise like that, then so could I. It didn’t appear to impress my parents that I had kept my promise on Christmas day when she had clearly broken hers. Christmas for many highlights the pain they feel from the past, the pain of the empty chair where a loved one once sat; the pain of a life that has not turned out as expected.
It is all a bit of a mess, this life of ours, and Christmas points this up very clearly. Yet into this comes Jesus. Tradition would love to put Jesus over there, in a stable, a quaint story that is frankly a little odd and certainly has nothing to do with everyday life. It’s not surprising that we add spacemen and Daleks in school plays—they are more familiar, and they make the story more accessible! (How many city-dwelling children even know what a ‘stable’ is, let alone why you would put a baby in one?) We can visit him once a year—and then we can leave him there, and get on with our everyday lives as if nothing has really changed.
That’s the traditional Jesus. But that’s not the real Jesus. The real Jesus isn’t born over there, away from it, he is born right here, in the heart of the home.
And there’s an intriguing detail in Luke’s story. In Luke 2.7 actually says something like ‘…because there was no space for them in the guest room.’ One way of understanding this is that Mary and Joseph were in the guest room—but once Jesus’ birth came, there wasn’t enough space, so they had to move into the main living room, where the animal food troughs were. Jesus could not be contained in a said room of the house; he came right into the middle of family life. He changed it. You cannot bring Jesus into a situation and it stays the same. That is what his followers loved about him—and that is what the authorities hated. That, ultimately, is what led them to crucify him. They would not tolerate the disruption he threatened to bring.
And as Jesus bursts into the centre of our lives, he comes to tackle those things about tradition.
First, he comes to set us free from the things that enslave us, that lock us in, that tell us ‘That’s just the way things are.’ They don’t have to be. Jesus comes with the power to break wrong rules and bad habits. He comes to bring freedom.
Secondly, he comes to make us whole, to set straight the things that are damaging. He tells us that there is another way to live; he shows us what it is; he comes to enable us to live it.
And thirdly, he comes to bring us healing—healing to the pain of past and healing for the pain of the present. In place of the empty seat at the Christmas meal table, he draws up a chair and takes his place.
What he doesn’t do is leave things as they are. Will you welcome Jesus? Will you welcome this disruptive influence? Or will you continue with your life, undisrupted by the predictability of tradition?
When we bring our Christmas tree into the living room, it won’t fit in with the furniture as it is. We have to rearrange the furniture to make space for the light it will give. Will you rearrange the furniture of your life to make space for Jesus? As that favourite Christmas hymn, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ puts it:
How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in.
The drama that was used earlier in the service can be found here.
Here is the PowerPoint I used to go with the first half of this talk.
You can listen to the sermon online here at the St Nic’s website.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?