December 25 2017
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-5; John 1.1-14
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
The trouble with Christmas Day is it comes immediately after Christmas Eve.
Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge of St Mary’s, Newington, in London’s inner city. He used to be canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, until the Occupy movement pitched its tents at the foot of the steps and the cathedral chapter disagreed on whether or how to move the protesters on. Fraser resigned.
Fraser writes a column for the London Guardian. He used to write for the Church Times, but he resigned from that too. Opinions may differ on whether he is moving up or down in the world.
Last Friday, he wrote in the Guardian about his son, Louie Emmanuel, one year old.
Louie is not a great sleeper. He wakes early, usually just after 4am. Giles and his wife Lynn take turns to sit with him. Sometimes, to comfort him, Giles whispers over and over the same phrase: “Abba po, abba po”. As some of you know, that’s Hebrew for “Daddy’s here”.
He wants to say, “I know it’s hard, but it’s OK. Abba po.”
From where Giles sits with his son he can see the church next door. Two Fridays ago, they kept the church lights on because his friend Michael was lying in a coffin in front of the altar.
On his left Louie was crying. On his right the soft light through the church window reminded him of his dead friend. To his son’s tears, he added his own.
It occurred to him that our basic job as priest or minister – we may even say our basic job as Christians – is to be with people when they cry and occasionally to whisper the reassurance, “Abba po”, pointing not to ourselves but to the God who calls us into intimacy with him.
Fraser recognizes, of course, that calling God Father now strikes many as disturbingly patriarchal. And he knows that to “Abba po” the words his one-year-old son much prefers are “Imma po”, Mummy’s here. “The gendered bit of calling God Abba is a metaphor,” he says; “the intimacy bit is not.”
God is with us. That’s what Louie’s second name means. That’s what the prophet Isaiah tells King Ahaz of Judah when the armies of Syria and Israel are massed at his borders and Ahaz is in a blue funk. That’s what the angel tells Joseph in Matthew’s Christmas story, when Joseph is afraid to take Mary as his wife.
In one sense, this reassurance changes nothing. Louie is still crying. Ahaz is still running scared. Michael is still dead. And Joseph has no idea what’s going on.
But in another sense, it changes everything. God is with us. That, says Giles Fraser, is the basic message of Christmas.
Christmas is not just the birth of one child. It is the rebirth of us all.
On Christmas Day, we celebrate the infant Christ as the first-fruits of a new humanity, just as at Easter we celebrate the risen Christ as the first-fruits of those who have died.
In the New York Times on Friday, Drew Dellinger wrote about Martin Luther King.
King preached his last Christmas sermon before he was murdered to his congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He told the congregation that if we are to achieve peace on earth, “we must develop a world perspective”, a vision for the entire planet.
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said, “tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
King was one of those visionaries who understood that the Christian gospel is about a new way of being human. For over a decade he led the African-American civil rights movement. From an early age, he was concerned about the environment. In the final years of his too-short life, he expanded his focus to include opposition to poverty and the war in Vietnam.
“It is very nice to drink milk at an unsegregated lunch counter,” he said, “but not when there’s strontium 90 in it.” Three weeks after his Christmas sermon, he visited the singer Joan Baez in jail when she was arrested protesting the Vietnam draft. To the labour leader Cesar Chavez, who organized farm workers in the fields of California, he wrote, “Our separate struggles are really one.”
Those who rule and misrule us – the powers and principalities of our world – would like to keep us separate, fragmented and divided. That makes us easier to control.
But God comes to us in Jesus of Nazareth to break down our divisions, to make us one people in one world.
How does this work? The devil is certainly in the details, but the mechanism is essentially simple.
God come to us in Jesus of Nazareth, and we respond by becoming different people. God shows God’s love for us in Jesus of Nazareth, and we respond by how we treat one another.
What else are we to do? We may be grateful to God for this unexpected Christmas gift. We may want to say thank you to God – saying thank you is not a bad description of Christian worship. We may even claim to love God.
But there is nothing practical we can do for God. We can’t give God flowers, or take God to a movie. We worship a God who is unresting, unhasting, and silent as light; nor wanting, nor wasting, but ruling in might. Nothing we do makes any difference to God. Nothing we do changes God. Everything we do changes us.
Abba po. The good news of Christmas is that God loves us. Our response to that love, quite simply, is to love one another. Our response to that love is to dedicate ourselves, as King dedicated his life, to showing that another world is possible.
If this is how we respond, then that other world is indeed possible.
Drew Dellinger, “Dr King’s interconnected world”, New York Times, December 22 2017
Giles Fraser, “Tidings of comfort and joy can’t take the pain out of life”, The Guardian, December 22 2017
Martin Luther King, “A Christmas sermon on peace”, December 24 1967
Sebastian Moore, God is a New Language (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1967)
Hubert J Richards, The First Christmas: What Really Happened? (London: Collins, 1973)
Ding, dong, merrily on high!
Hope is a candle, once lit by the prophets (CH4 285)
Lord, you were rich beyond all splendour (CH4 318)
Wise men, they came to look for wisdom (CH4 328)
Still the night, holy the night (CH4 309)
O come, all ye faithful (CH4 306)
 If you wonder why the Reverend Canon Giles Fraser whispers to his son in Hebrew, did I mention that his wife Lynn is an Israeli Jew? We live in boundary-crossing times.