There is a place for you in this story.

This address was given at the Carol Service for those who find Christmas Difficult.

The bible readings in the service were Matthew 1:18-25 and Matthew 2:1-18

The two poems included were A Blessing for The New Baby, by Luci Shaw, which can be found here 

And Onlookers, also by Luci Shaw, which can be found here 

 

It is hard to know where to begin this year.  On top of the wounds that we all carry to some degree, this year has brought fresh burdens, a mix of anxiety, fear, tiredness, trauma, and so much more.  And now we are coming to terms with an even more reduced Christmas than we expected.  If you are struggling and finding it hard to be thankful for the fragments of good around us, then that is absolutely okay.  Sometimes we need to let the mask of cheerfulness slip a little and acknowledge the burdens we bear.  Sometimes, sitting with our sadness for a time allows us to begin to process the loss and prepare us to move on, there is no hurrying grief. 

There has been good this year, of course, the coming together of communities, the pride in our National Health Service, the hope engendered by the vaccines.  But all these have come within a growing tide of difficult news, dominated with the new variant of virus spreading more quickly, the plans made now cancelled or much reduced, growing numbers of redundancies, families reliant on food parcels, the breaking news of Tier 4 restrictions immediately after Christmas. 

And so, we gather at the deepest, darkest part of the year yearning for light, for warmth, for good news.  And there is good news here in this story which can hold us all, the story of God come among us as a helpless baby.  There is good news here because it is a story rich enough and deep enough to carry all our sorrows, to carry us, and light our way home. 

The bible readings for this evening are ones not always told at this time of year.  The story of the announcement of Jesus birth is told from Joseph’s perspective.  We are more used to the account from Luke with its epic view of political decisions working their way down into ordinary human lives, compelling Mary, and Joseph to travel from their homes to register in a census.  We too, find our lives constrained by political decisions, and the devastating impact that the lockdown has had for so many.

But our first reading from Matthew has a more intimate focus.  It introduces us to the inner workings of a man’s heart, as he wrestles with the loss of the life he had expected, planned for, all lost to the news that the young woman he was betrothed to was pregnant with a child not his own.  Luci Shaw’s poem gently draws our attention to the bone deep disenchantment of Joseph, dealing with the messy splash of labour, hands bloodied from the birth, weary with unwelcome.  I wonder for how many unwelcome has been, is still, a part of their story, brought to the fore at this family-oriented time of year?  Unwelcome has a place in the heart of this story.  And so, there is a place here for all who have felt unwelcome, and a place for all who have felt unwelcoming. 

Mary is silent in these texts, the wordless woman-child.  According to Luke she is taken from her home to Bethlehem, taken from her mother and the familiar women of her home who would have attended her at the birth, comforted her, helped her breastfeed her new-born child, showed her how to swaddle him.  There are so many of us, far from our families, unable to see, to touch, to hold those we love.  Absence looms large in this story, those most depended on, most loved, missing.  There is place here for all who cannot see the ones they love, who cannot go home.

The wise men were the scientists of their day, deeply learned, willing to risk improbably journeys in their pursuit of knowledge, who in their unworldliness stumble into a situation that all their wisdom had not prepared them for.  They do what is obvious and look for a new-born king in the palace in the capital city.  They fail to recognise the political manoeuvrings of Herod, and unthinkingly set-in train the murder of innocent children.  There is a place here for all who have thoughtlessly, unwittingly, got things badly wrong.

Then there is Herod, deeply insecure, clutching desperately at power.  We have turned Herod into a pantomime villain.  He might have justified his actions as removing a security threat to the stability of the nation, which led to innocents slain to root out sedition.  This is a forerunner of the bitter wars we are so familiar with today in which civilian lives lost in conflict are euphemistically termed collateral damage to shield us from the horror of broken bodies and shattered lives.  There is a place here for those who carry burdens of responsibility so heavy that they lose sight of our shared humanity.

And always, always pushed to the edges, left out of most telling’s, are the innocents, the children killed, the children dying because of poverty, climate change, curable diseases lacking treatment, born into a deeply divided and unequal world.  There is a special place here, close to the heart of God for all lost too soon, lost to violence, accident, sickness, and negligence. 

There is a place here for all of us too, a place made possible by that baby, born in Bethlehem so long ago.  The baby grew as we do, shouldered the burdens we carry, tasted the joys that lighten our lives, became acquainted with our griefs. He grew to carry the sorrows of the world.  We might stand helpless, hopeless, at the pain and sorrow we glimpse near at hand and far away.  We are onlookers to the unfolding grief of friends, neighbours, families, just as they are onlookers to our pain.  Even the shared loss of a parent is experienced differently by siblings.  We carry our own pains which we cannot ever really share just as Mary carried her pain, standing under the cross’s inanimate arm.  Above her, sheltering her even then, was Jesus, love more than nails holding him there. 

Immersed in the world, this baby, grown, has climbed the rugged hill of our pain, endured the brutal messages of the nails, lain in our tombs, risen from death that he might gently, tenderly, enfold us in his loving arms and carry us home.  There is no place so dark, so deep, that Christ has not entered, ready to lift us up again. 

Whatever you carry, whatever your struggles, may you be assured always, ever, of God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s absolute and joyful acceptance of you.  You are honoured and welcome in this story, which is the story of God bending towards the world with all-embracing love.  Amen.