One of the pleasant, even hopeful, illusions about Christmas is that everything else takes a back seat. My childhood memories, fuelled by nostalgia, are my mother reading a mixture of Gospel stories and Christmas fantasy to us on Christmas Eve, as everything else was set aside. We had critical rituals for the season, marking it as separate from every other day. Christmas itself was early morning worship, followed by presents and family meals; nothing else intruded.
I imagine that this is an accurate reflection of Christmas for many other people; however, it has had many incarnations since I was a child. People we love have died, others we love have become part of our Christmas community, and we have moved – almost all of us – around the state, even around the world. As have most families. Like many others, I work over Christmas. Our Christmas illusion is simply that, and our celebrations need to happen in the midst of everything else.
Our imagined Christmas, hermetically sealed from reality, is precisely not what Matthew and Luke are describing, as Mary conceives and Joseph begins to comprehend. The tinsellated version some of us like to tell is nice and neat and tidy, where even the mob of sheep is well behaved. That’s not the story, though. From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the shadow of what could happen hovers over Mary’s pregnancy and we witness the reaction of Joseph, then the community, followed by strangers from the East, and then Herod. The wonder of Luke’s account is far too astonishing to fit neatly anywhere, as a tiny baby is born while the whole Roman empire is counted and angel armies appear in the sky.
Jesus appears in the midst of everything – empires and despots and foreign sages, a census of the known world and a family drawn into social chaos and divine intention. The angels rejoice and stock workers are wondrously overwhelmed as God turns up. And the sign of this God, our God, the God of all the ages and all creation, is a baby. Jesus Christ, at risk, among us. This is why Christmas, told as Matthew and Luke tell us, makes sense. This is why Emmanuel, God with us, is absolutely vital. Jesus is in the midst of it all. The humanity of Jesus – that he can be held in human hands – embraces and implicates everyone.
This embrace is for communities where drought is crippling, for those struggling with addiction, and for those who will be fearful of violence in their own homes this Christmas. This embrace is for those who are imprisoned, or punished for seeking refuge, and the implication is for our voices to speak and our hands to act.
Jesus’ complete humanity is about all of us. As our church has affirmed a larger understanding of marriage, we declare that our own humanity – gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender or intersex – is valued in the eyes of God. This is our discipleship to Jesus Christ, compelling us to follow, as an extraordinary community in service to an extraordinary God.
And God turns up. Certainly in the joy of a shared meal, as friends are made welcome and strangers become friends. Even more certainly when someone who believes they are not worth God’s attention is reminded, by our invitation and embrace, that God invites shepherds to bear witness, before anyone else, to the birth of Christ. Emmanuel becomes tangible when people spend money in rural communities to support them, and to let them know that are remembered and valued.
God is with those who suffer the injustice of violence, in their homes, from government, or from the church. We will not be silent: we will speak and act and pray and proclaim for those who are bound in silence. The hope and wonder of Christmas, as Jesus breaks into the world, is that God gets in our way. Whether Jesus interferes with our “neat and tidy”, or sits with us in our silence, Emmanuel declares that we are worth all of God’s passionate involvement. God with all
Rev. Simon Hansford