Christmas: deepest vulnerability and most profound love

Stephen Adam, 25 December 2015

Isaiah 9: 2–7; Luke 2: 1–14

Most of us will have heard Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus in the manger and the visit of the shepherds countless times over the decades. It’s familiar on our Christmas cards; the images have captured the imagination of artists over the centuries; we celebrate the stable birth and the shepherds in music and carols; and, of course, for many of our young children the Christmas nativity play remains a rite of passage, complete with tea towels and stuffed animals.

But the very familiarity of the story makes it all too easy for us to overlook just what’s going on. Luke’s birth narrative has a cast of ordinary people coping with occasional, extraordinary events.

At what we call the annunciation, Mary – a simple peasant girl – had this vision, this encounter with the angel Gabriel, with this most extraordinary promise of how she had found favour with God and would bear a child: the Messiah. In due course the child is conceived but then there is silence. No more is heard from God. Mary and Joseph get on with their obscure peasant lives until, with extraordinarily bad timing, the emperor’s census causes a 90-mile trip to Bethlehem, with Mary having to give birth not at home but in an obscure stable.

Did Mary crossly think: if this birth was so important, surely God could have fixed better arrangements than this? But there is only silence.

At Christmas we can rush all too easily from Luke’s spare account of Jesus’ birth, without any divine glamour, to the angels appearing. But note that Mary and Joseph didn’t see any angels; they were left to cope with the mess and pain of the birth alone, with God apparently keeping quiet.

God does send an angel, a messenger, eventually; but not to Mary and Joseph. Instead to that most unlikely assembly of outsiders: humble shepherds in the fields, outcasts from the elite, who become the breathless bearers of the astonishing news to Mary – ‘Good news of great joy to all the people’ – heralding that God has acted decisively with this obscure birth and that this child is the Messiah, the Saviour.

What a comfort that must have been to Mary and Joseph! It was an assurance that God had not abandoned them or given up on them, that God’s silence is not to be taken as God’s absence.

And that really is the message of Christmas for us too. The birth of the Christ child proclaims that God has not given up on us and on his world. He appears to us in the life of Jesus, a life of complete identification with human suffering and need.

God has not given up on us and on his world. He appears to us in the life of Jesus, a life of complete identification with human suffering and need.

That promise, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going away’, is one of the most powerful things we can hear, whether from someone at the bedside in illness; or over a drink in a time of stress or anxiety; or at a moment when we wonder what’s going on in our society. And this past year has certainly seen times of darkness and scenes of deep suffering in our world.

But that promise, ‘I’m not going away’, is something we can hold on to and lies at the heart of what Christmas says about God. The Christmas story that we celebrate today, of a baby’s birth in the most wretched and messy circumstances, reveals to us something deep about the essence of God.

God communicates with us not in arguments or debates or theological treatises, but in terms of a tiny human life and the cries of a powerless baby – in terms of the deepest vulnerability and the most profound love. This love finds its ultimate expression on the cross, as the wooden manger of Bethlehem becomes the wooden cross of Calvary.

Lancelot Andrewes, that great 17th-century divine and one of the most distinguished bishops of Winchester, in his Christmas Day sermon in our Cathedral in 1620 describes the incarnation as ‘the Word that cannot speak’. That phrase draws attention to the powerlessness of this baby and also to the power of this human life to be, the most complete expression of God beyond words that we can describe.

And Archbishop Rowan Williams has written of how ‘in a world of competition, frenzied chatter, control-obsession, there is a terrible aptness in a God who speaks in a child’s cry. And it is so cruelly hard for believers and unbelievers alike to face the possibility that silence, stumbling, the apparent crudity of this stable birth tell you far more about God that the languages of would-be adult sophisticates.’

If you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the reputed birth place of the Christ child, you have to bend low through the entrance. Today, as at every Christmas, we’re invited to that stable door, to bend low, to gaze in wonder upon the baby born for our salvation, and to hear again the voice of the angel announcing to the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’.

Thanks be to God. Amen.