Christmas Day 2016
Reading Luke 2:1-14
Nearly every year there are terrible ironies at Christmas. We speak of the season of peace and good will but we struggle with the dreadful ironies of war, terrorism and disaster. We tell the story of how the Holy Family makes the uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem but finds itself homeless and must improvise some accommodation – and with that familiar part of the story we also recognise an aspect of our world: the plight of refugees barred from Europe; the dilemma of homeless people in our own country, unable to afford housing; the hardship experienced by those suffering from natural disasters – earthquakes and flood. These realities stand in tension with the season.
Yet that’s not quite true is it? The first Christmas is inseparable from these ironies. (The peace and goodwill is the fiction, a part of the Christmas card sentimentality that we impose upon the season.) In the brief sketch Luke gives us of their circumstances, it is clear that the Holy family are at the lower end of the social scale: they are told to get registered and they comply. They don’t plead special circumstances (Mary is pregnant); they don’t argue; they comply. The hazards and discomforts of the journey for a young woman so close to delivery are not considered. They don’t make a fuss. Even the accommodation, though modest, meagre, and minimal, is at least, better than nothing. This is a family who are transients – we could in modern terms think of them as street people and recognise them as our own marginalised people, sleeping in cars or garages.
To be like that, so poor, is to be vulnerable. So much will depend on Joseph’s health and strength, on his ability to improvise and find employment. The slightest accident or misfortune and they will be in trouble. There is no social backup, so system of support. They are vulnerable to the hazards of extortion and abuse. How will they survive in a world where officials are corrupt and oppressive? How will they survive the arbitrary use of power, the use of brute force? The temple police, and the Roman soldiers are enforcers for the well off and the powerful – in this world, how can the Holy Family survive? How is it that the great purpose of God in Jesus is entrusted to a family that is so vulnerable?
We are so used to speaking about the growing gap between rich and poor in our own society that we are almost trapped in platitudes and our moral imagination is numbed. The bill that can’t be paid; the paralysing fear of the destitute who have nowhere to turn and no one to care: this is not just for the people in the failed economies of nations such as Zimbabwe or Venezuela but for many in a globalised economic system where wealth is controlled by the powerful. As we contemplate the problems of our world now and the fragility of the lives many live, the vulnerability of the Holy Family shocks us.
When St John talks about the mystery of the Incarnation, how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us we can be shocked by the idea, the absolute mystery of God confined and concentrated into human flesh, our substance – that is conceptually shocking – but in Luke, when we see the circumstances into which the Christ comes, the shock is of another dimension altogether. The great purpose of salvation is entrusted to the barest flow and flux of human contingency; entrusted to life in a family living at the edge; set into circumstances where anything could go wrong and the scope for misfortune and disaster seems utterly unfenced. This seems a terrible gamble, a desperate wager; you could even say that it seems irresponsible and foolish!
Is this in effect the great risk of creation? That the love of God embraces the risks of the incarnation so utterly that there is no safety net and Jesus is truly and most profoundly ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘God with us’ because he is subjected to the hazards of a disordered and dangerous world.
I talk of risks and vulnerability, of God wagering everything in a venture that seems so unprotected and uncertain, but alongside that I also find the tradition of the church and the memory it holds – as we see in various icons: I think of Mary and Joseph and their extraordinary care and protection of the infant Jesus.
I began by speaking of the terrible ironies we confront in the Christmas season; and yet, the more we attend, the more we become aware of the glorious ironies of this season. Against chance and probability, in the Holy Family we catch a sense of a wisdom, grace and strength beyond all expectation. The child is in good hands. The great purpose of God holds firm.