Friday, 19 January 2018

Street Nativities and #GodWithUs: what does Christmas do?

What does Christmas do?

That might sound like an odd question.

We know what happens at Christmas: the shopping and preparations, the family celebrations, the present-giving-and-receiving, as well as the more 'churchy' things - how Advent tries to 'do December differently', the magic of Nativity Plays and carol-singing and Midnight Mass...

We know what Christmas is about: the birth of Jesus, the long-awaited 'Saviour'; the journey to Bethlehem; the visits from shepherds and magi; the angels' message of 'Don't be afraid'; the fearfulness of Herod and his baby-killing; the flight into Egypt...

But what does Christmas do? By that, I mean at least two things. What does it do to Christians: how does it shape us? what transformations does it work in us? And what do we Christians expect it to do to our friends and neighbours with whom we're wanting to share it? If there's a 'message' in Christmas, what is the message, and what difference do we expect it to make?

For some of you who read this, you may feel I'm asking the blatantly obvious. You may have all the answers clear in your mind, concisely expressed, and tied up neater than your mum's Christmas present-wrapping. You may be bewildered that someone who has been ordained for close to 20 years is puzzling about this blatantly obvious stuff. You may wonder why, almost a month after the Christmas services, nativity plays, school assemblies and a good handful of sermons are over, I'm just getting around to asking the question.

Fair enough. But it still puzzles me, and I'm still pondering in both mind and heart. Maybe a little bit like, so we're told, Jesus' mother Mary did, with all those things that happened in and around her son's birth. So maybe I'm in good company. And that, I think, comes close to the point.

I think I want to suggest three things.

"Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing" (Luke 2:15)

Firstly, in Christmas, we're invited to take part in the story. Like the shepherds on the hillside, there is a gravitational pull to the Bethlehem manger - to go and see, to be in on the wonder and joy of it, to be part of the event. That's one of the reasons we've found ourselves doing a 'Street Nativity' every year on the Firs & Bromford estate - it's a story not just "for the children", but for us adults too, if we let ourselves get in touch with that curious, wondering, joyful bit of ourselves. The dressing up, the animals (we had a couple of alpacas this last Christmas!), the acting out, the journeying together, the baddie (boo, hiss!!!), the final tableau of a wonderfully random collection of humanity brought together in a straw-strewn stable scene, gathered around a new-born baby (a real one always preferable).

"They shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'" (Matthew 1:23)

Secondly, in Christmas, the good news at its simplest is that 'God is with us'. With us, in flesh and blood, in the baby Jesus, yes. But also - and here I think is one of the bits of Christmas that we sometimes miss - with the teenage, single mum Mary ("the Lord is with you", says the angel); with Joseph in his agonising transition into 'step-dad' role; with the expectant couple on a long, hard journey to the place where there was "no room"; with the shepherds, those on the edges of the town, on the edges of 'society', in and out of dangerous and precarious work; with the magi, the seekers, the foreigners, the travellers; with the holy family, fleeing for their lives, seeking asylum in a distant land. 'God is with us' is good news for all of those characters in the story - but also for their contemporary equivalents, and for the bits of them in all of us. God is part of our story, repeating the Christmas refrain of "don't be afraid". God being with us doesn't make everything instantly better - but the intimate presence of divine love does, mysteriously, deal with our fear.

"Greetings, favoured one" (Luke 1:28)

So the invitation to be part of acting out the Christmas story leads us to discover that God is part of our story. But the invitation goes further: to discover our part - not play acting Mary or a shepherd, but as our real and true selves - in God's ongoing story. "Greetings, favoured one," said Gabriel, appearing in front of Mary with a job for her to do. But immersed in the Christmas story is a similar greeting, invitation and challenge to us - in whom God also finds delight and favour that we have rarely noticed for ourselves. Jesus all-too-quickly grows up in our bibles, becoming the adult who calls to us, "follow me". But already in the Christmas story we hear the first whispers of God's unique call to us: "you will conceive... you will name... you will find... get up, take, go...". What shape will our "let it be to me" take? What gifts will we find when we open our treasure chests, ready to give? What path will we take, when we find ourselves going home "by another road"?

Not just play-acting, then.