A sermon for the Sunday after Christmas preached by David Barton at the online Parish Eucharist on 27 December 2020.
This year, among our Christmas cards there was a photograph of what is apparently the oldest depiction of the nativity story. Its a carving in the Byzantine museum in Athens. It dates from sometime before the year 500, so that makes it very early.
In the centre is the Christ Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. Just behind him are a floppy eared donkey and an ox. On either side are two trees, presumably the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Its an enchanting scene, and it took me a moment to realise that there was no Mary and no Joseph. It was just this; the child and the ox and ass, and the sheltering trees. The two animals are clearly very concerned about this baby in their manger. They look over him anxiously, and the ox’s long rough tongue is licking the baby by way of comfort. And the child seems to be responding with a smile.
But why no Mary, no Joseph? Well, of course we don’t know, but as I looked at it it seemed to me that the picture was asking a question: what would you do? What would you do if you came across this baby, alone among the animals with no mother or father to care? Its as if that artist of long ago is saying, here he is, he whom all of nature adores and knows, and you need to do the ordinary human thing – take him, hold him, care for him.
Of course, we are a bit reserved. We much prefer to look, to hold the baby for a bit, then hand him back. Christmas easily becomes a spectator event. Because, deep down, we know about babies. Every child is a wonder and a miracle, but we also know that they come into your life and they change it: they shatter your nights and rearrange your days. They seize our attention and hold it from the moment of birth until we ourselves die. Babies hold wonder and disturbance in one breath! To pick up the Christchild is to find ourselves drawn in and committed in just that way. For life.
This ancient carver understands the shattering thing about Christmas: that this, this human flesh and blood is where God is. If you want to see what God is like, look at the human face of Jesus – in God there is nothing that is not Christlike.
But interestingly, of all the New Testament writers only Matthew and Luke choose to tell us of this birth. The others, Mark, John, Paul either don’t know or choose to ignore it. But they are all quite clear that this Jesus is for us: “Come to me,” he says. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” And: “I in you and you in me.” The truth is Mary and Joseph fade from the picture fast. This carving seems to me to underline the truth that our often sentimentalised picture of the “holy family” in the stable at Bethlehem misses: that the Birth at Bethlehem is also another birth, a birth in our hearts.
So consider this: that Christmas is the message that in all of us, yes, in all of us, is born the life and energy of this child. He grows determined to put this world on a better course, where we might live in harmony with the rest of the created order and with each other. He asks us to wake up to our inner ability to forgive, to carry the pains of others, to acknowledge our common, frail humanity, and always to push on to make a better world.
The message of this child, grown to be a man, was not just a dream. It was and still is an achievable reality, because our humanity is, this child reminds us, God given. And like the bursting energy and life of a child, God continually gives us the grace and life to achieve all this. As this pandemic goes on we need to return to this understanding of ourselves again and again. We are full of mystery and grace and capability you and I. That is not a dream. Living out of its truth we can repair a world gone awry.