December 24 2017
Genesis 18.1-21; Isaiah 9.2-7a;Luke 1.26-38; Luke 2.1-14; Matthew 2.1-12; John 1.1-14
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
As they near the end of a long journey, the young man and young woman are invited by an aged shepherd abiding in the field to stop, just for a moment, and warm themselves by his fire.
The woman says: “I will tell our child about you. About your kindness.”
The shepherd replies: “My father told me a long time ago that we are all given something – a gift. Your gift is what you carry inside.”
And Mary asks him: “What was your gift?”
“Nothing,” he says sadly. “Nothing but the hope of waiting for one.”
Last Tuesday night, tired of the endless barrage of bad news from here and abroad, Vivien and I took time out to watch The Nativity Story, a Hollywood movie made in 2006. It is what the title suggests, a film about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The scene I’ve just quoted is my favourite.
In Britain, where the Church of Scotland is based, Hallmark is the most traditional of greeting card makers. This year it offered 376 kinds of Christmas cards, but only five were religious: three with Mary and Joseph in the stable, two Madonnas with child.
If you went looking for an Advent calendar on Amazon this year, you would have found the same story. Nick Cohen is a columnist with the Observer newspaper in London. “Once again,” he writes, “Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men had disappeared to the margins. There were more Star Wars than religious calendars – apparently, the Force is more powerful than the Holy Spirit today.”
Cohen is a “private atheist” who believes that all gods are inventions from humanity’s childhood and a “public secularist” who insists, rightly, that the religious are not allowed to impose their views on the rest of us.
You might expect him to be delighted that in the western world the Christ is being taken out of Christmas. But a good columnist always manages to surprise you.
Cohen is not delighted. In losing religion, he says, we lose touch with each other. We lose a common language in which to talk about our complicated world.
I am not an atheist – as a minister standing in a pulpit in this town, how could I be? With all respect to Cohen, I believe that atheism is a sign of our immaturity, an invention of those who are finding it hard to grow up. And while I agree with Cohen that in losing religion we lose touch with one another, I want to say that also and more importantly we lose touch with God.
Happily, God insists on getting in touch with us.
Throughout the course of human history, God tries to get our attention, so easily distracted. God speaks to us through the prophets – prophets, I suspect, who are not confined to the pages of what we Christians call the Old Testament and others call the Bible. God speaks to us in the Shoah, and God speaks to us in the Nakba.
On Christmas night, God speaks to us through the wordless crying of a new-born child.
In the film I watched on Tuesday, there is a silent interaction in a stable in Bethlehem. Mary looks at the elderly shepherd. He looks at her and the infant she holds in her arms. Not a word is exchanged. They say nothing. But we understand that he understands that the child who was born that night is not just a gift to Mary, but a gift to him, and to you, and to me – God’s gift to the whole world.
As we come to the end of this dispiriting year, it is hard to hope. And there are many in high places who do not want us to hope, because hope is subversive. It encourages us, against all the odds, to work for change.
But in the highest of high places, there is one who wants us to hope. On Christmas night, the glory of the Lord shines around us. It shines in the shepherds’ field in Beit Sahour, where many of us may not go. It shines here in Jerusalem, this divided city at the heart of a divided land. It shines in Baghdad and Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. In Riyadh and Sana’a and Tehran. In Beijing and Moscow and DC.
It shines, I dare say, even in the offices of the London Observer.
It shines in all the darkness of the dark world that to our shame we have made, and the angels in the multitude of their heavenly host tell us that it shall overcome our darkness.
In this service of six lessons and nine carols, we invite you to warm yourselves in word and song. If you are Christian, we invite you to find again your hope in the Christ child, God’s Christmas present neatly wrapped in swaddling clothes. If you are Jew, or Muslim, or nothing in particular, we invite you to find your hope in God, for where else is hope to be found?
And then we invite you to stop waiting: to go out in hope to change our dark world, knowing that God goes ahead of us, and to change it for good.
Nick Cohen “In losing religion we lose touch with each other”, The Observer, December 17 2017