For those who were present at the service last Sunday Id like to continue that theme of a childs view of Christmas, wrapped of course in the need to reflect on the meaning of the birth of Jesus as an adult. I do find Christmas an attractive season because it is a festival, its a party and children, as many adults do, like a party. There can also be in this season a lovely sense of wonder and hopefulness. And of course you cant speak about peace on earth and good will toward all people too often.
Yes, there is the crass consumerism and a fair bit of missing the "reason for the season" but really thats what life is like. Its often a kind of mingling of the best of times and the worst. A mixing of the good and the bad and sometimes the downright ugly!
This came home to me when I visited Jerusalem in 2007. When you walk through the old city your sensibilities are assaulted by every kind of religious trinket you can find. "You like the baby Jesus? Here, only 20 shekels, and I have a manger that glows in the dark!" The trader produced a cardboard box with a small hole you could peer into. Sure enough as I looked through the hole into the box there was a little manger glowing in the dark. Now for me that was a rather "Ho hum" experience but as I stepped aside, a small boy took the box and looked in and squealed with utter delight. Maybe in my theological sophistication I missed something. Im not as easily surprised by joy as this young boy was. While I may seek the mystery of Christmas in the wonder of the mingling of the human and the divine, the child can see "hope born in dark places". Children know the magic of the season. So in our beautifully imperfect world there is always a little magic wrapped in mystery.
Finding God in Christmas
So I think, to find the presence of God; of the divine; of "God with us" in the birth of Jesus, we need a good dose of "wide-eyed wonder" and children are our best teachers when it comes to this! While we have often cluttered the Christmas story, the narrative of Jesus birth, with a lot of religious and theological banter, the important thing is not to lose the simplicity of the story.
Unfortunately, for many in the 21st century, the mention of a virgin giving birth, visits by celestial beings and astrologers following a moving star means that the story is relegated to the likes of a fairy-tale. But such things are of less concern to the child and it may be because the child focuses on the central aspect of the story and the telling of the story: children, as we parents and grandparents know, can revel in a well-told story.
On a trip to Canada a few years ago I gave a book to my granddaughter Naomi which was the story of a wombat who through a fair bit of cleverness convinced a family to feed him, house him and serve him. I think it was titled The Diary of a Wombat. One night before bed, I read the book to Naomi and Joanne and Noah. At the end of the story Naomi says, "Gramps, will you read it again?" So I did. And after the second reading she said, "And again?" Why did she want it repeated over and over again? Because the story came alive in her imagination when it was read to her. She was there in that place with the very clever wombat. And thats what we need for this story we need to find ourselves in the story and allow it to form and shape us.
When God is a Child
I love Brian Wrens hymn that is often sung with the lighting of the Advent candles:
When God is a child
There is joy in my song
The weak shall be strong
And the last shall be first
And none shall be afraid.
The child can identify with every line in that song: The weak shall be strong .the last shall be first . And none shall be afraid. So when our image of God is as a child we gain a unique perspective on the world. We tend in traditional Christian faith to be more comfortable with the image of God as a Father, and less comfortable with the image of God as a mother. And perhaps we have never even considered the image of God as a child. A father is strong, a child is vulnerable wide-eyed and open to life as it expands. I think that is a great way of imaging the Divine.
I dont usually quote Pope Benedict the 16th but in his Christmas address a couple of years ago he said:
At Christmas, God is defenceless, without weapons, because he does not aim to conqueror from the outside In the light of Christmas we understand the words of Jesus, "Unless you become as a little child you shall not enter the realm of God."
To hold a baby in your arms is an extraordinary thing. One experiences the powerlessness of this little one. But at the same time one is aware of the power of life that is pulsating through this little body; the potentiality the embodiment of hope and the fulfilment of promise all wrapped up in this small human life.
In the face of this new one born in a manger 2,000 years ago and in the face of every child born into this world, we catch a glimpse of the Divine; "God with us", Emmanuel. Yes, a child is a very apt symbol of God with us.
Unfortunately, when God is a King we are subservient to God. When God is a warrior we follow him into war. When God is mighty we are weak. But when God is a child the world is a place of hope, joy, love and play and anything is possible. What a different world we would have if we imagined God as a chubby, laughing child looking down on us giggling and wanting to play.
Well that's maybe too comical for some, but remember: Christian theology has had no problem placing God in a manger and calling him Jesus. And while at the end of the day that is too simplistic an idea, nevertheless, we can be always grateful that the authors of Matthews and Lukes gospels gave us a wonderful imaginative story of Jesus as a baby and of the presence of God wrapped around him. The gospel of Mark, the gospel of John and St Paul saw no need to give an account of Jesus birth, but this picture of new life born in a dark, a difficult time - this young one who would preach a message of hope and freedom - is essential to full understanding of the coming together of the Human and the Divine.
So the Christmas story is a sort of counter-cultural story. It tells us that the presence of God is found not only in power and majesty; not in the call of the warrior to war and violence; but in poverty and simplicity, in powerlessness and vulnerability:
And not far away there were some shepherds sleeping out in the fields. Their job was to watch over the sheep at night. A messenger from God suddenly appeared to them, and the sky lit up and they were frightened. "Do not be afraid", said the messenger, "Ive got good news for you and the whole world. Today in the town of David a deliverer has been born; he is the Messiah, and we know God is with him and with us. If you travel up the road a little further, you will find a baby wrapped up and lying in a feeding trough. Dont let that put you off. He is one of a kind." As the messenger left, it seemed as if the stars in the sky began to sing "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to all who take this message deep into their hearts".
It was the third-century saint Athanasius who said, "The divine became human so that we may become divine". What better place to see the coming together of the human and the divine than in a small child born into this world without trappings or grandeur or symbols of pretension. God present and alive with us, within us, around us and beyond us.