Could you think of a better time to be at Holy Trinity, Williamstown? I have always felt that anything new is exciting. That is the thrill we feel as we unwrap presents round the Christmas tree. Something new is about to come into my life! How exciting!
Our Christmas present as a parish this year is our shiny new Parish Centre. So many things have been put on hold for years while we have waited for our efforts to come to fruition, when a place for it all to happen became ours. The dream of a completed Parish Centre has now become the dream of all we will be able to do with it.
Our morning tea after church will no longer on a rickety folding table at the back of the church. Our Community Meal and Emergency Relief services will come home to Holy Trinity. Toilets are no longer a temporary tin box shared by all! The bliss! Community Groups calling our centre home and showing the local people around us that the Christian Church has something to offer and a part to play in our community.
It is so good we are opening it on the Sunday that begins Advent, the season where we prepare ourselves to celebrate God’s greatest gift. This gift of his Son gave humanity a new understanding of itself. We are no longer mere mortals at the mercy of a distant God, but we are now loved beings accompanied by God’s own Son back into the embrace of a caring, forgiving and merciful Creator.
So put up your Christmas tree and cover it with lights. I know both those things emanate from Germanic and Roman festivities that celebrated the forest and the Sun and that both symbolised life coming into the world. I would guess that is why Christians adopted them from earlier religions, to mark the celebration of the true life God offers us coming into the world. To proclaim that the God who “emptied himself of all but love” and joined us here in the world to fulfill God’s purpose of winning us back.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall
not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
The Venerable Bill Beagley
Here is an abstract conundrum to consider. At what point is an issue we consider to be right worth fighting a war over? Of course we want what is right for our society, our nation, even our world. But when we engage in war over an issue, how much damage is done? How many lives are injured or lost. War itself is a bad thing. It hurts. Yet humanity has been resorting to it for thousands of years to sort out its disagreements.
It is certainly my belief that every individual, community and nation that has engaged in war has not done so to be evil to their opponent. They have gone to war to defend what they believe in, what they believe they must preserve. Their disagreement, anger and hatred of their enemy arises from their difference of conscience about what must be defended and preserved.
Such historical horrors as the Holocaust, Apartheid, the Irish ‘Troubles’, today’s terrorism movements and even the Crusades of the 11th to the 13th centuries all grew out of nations or religions or races developing beliefs so extreme and entrenched that to those who held them. They grossly outweighed the prospect of death and destruction that fighting a war would involve. In the minds of those who committed these gargantuan acts of violence, they were defending the right. In every war, both sides believe themselves to be the defending party.
Now this is pretty heavy stuff to be opening with, considering that what I want to write about is the recent movement towards Marriage Equality in our nation. I am not inferring that I expect we will end up at war on this issue. However, in the conflict arising in promotion of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases in the recent mail poll, many of the processes I described above have slipped out into the arena. All the arguments have been about “I hold a belief (about human rights, moral values, human traditions, etc), and your different beliefs threaten mine, so you must be wrong, so I must fight to defend mine.”
The question I have wanted to ask throughout the debate, and ask of both sides, is this: Does somebody holding a different view to yours threaten the views you hold? Because if you think they do, you need to ask if you looked in a mirror, whether your views equally threaten theirs? Are we opposed, or are we just different?
In my time as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, I have had people refuse to take Communion from me because I have long hair. They believed that only a man can take up the priestly office of the church, and objected to and refused to accept the ordination of women. A significant minority of Anglicans worldwide still hold this view. The people I encountered, however, believed that because I had long hair, I was identifying as a woman and thus making myself unfit to hold the order of Priest. Was I angry? To me it hardly seemed worth it. I found their view to be incorrect to the point of the bizarre. I do not for a minute think I need to give physical proof of my gender, nor do I accept their argument that if I were a woman, I could not minister as a Priest, anyway. But since I believed they held their beliefs in all sincerity, so I could respect that, move on, and give Communion to the next person.
The points of difference in the Marriage Equality debate seem to me to arise from the definition of marriage. My personal views about this really revolve around the fact that most of the definitions I have heard put forward have been phrased to suit one view or the other, and neither side’s are fully water-tight.
Here are some examples:
Marriage has always been the ultimate commitment of love between two people. Actually, if you look at most weddings in the Bible, and in the ancient world, and even in many societies around the world today, couples are married who had no choice in it all. In most biblical weddings, the couple met at the wedding ceremony. Their fathers, the Patriarchs, contracted with each other to marry their offspring for socio-political purposes. Slaves and servants are told who their spouses would be. Have a look at 1 Kings 11:1-6. King Solomon sealed every international treaty or deal he made by marrying one of his counterpart’s daughters.
A marriage is solely about having children. Every family needs a mother and a father. So let me ask you this: If I, as a marriage celebrant, know a couple to be infertile, or even simply do not plan to have children, or are elderly and clearly past childbearing, should I refuse to marry them? If a father or mother walks out on their family, leaving the
other to parent alone, should those children then be removed from the single parent? Since social research has shown that children of same sex couples do not measure less than any other children on all developmental or emotional scales, I feel this argument falls before it even gets out of the stalls.
If marriage is redefined, our children will lose any sense of their sexual identity. This is the “my son was told he could wear a dress to school” argument that graced our TV screens over the debate. Putting aside the fact that it was shown that this never actually happened, there have been people who are same sex attracted, or have questioned their gender identity throughout human history. Even the Bible attests to this. We are back at the question, does somebody being different to me constitute an attack on me? Like the me/hair/woman/priest story I told earlier, if I am confident in my own identity, then no, anybody else’s identity, no matter how divergent, different or remote from mine, has no affect on my own. Children have growing up fine in a myriad of diverse social settings and assumptions for centuries, within every society.
All I hope for is that this humanity of which I am a member, and which I actually think is a pretty amazing thing, realise that no matter how different we might be, we are all in it together. Our existence is a shared existence. By respecting one another, by listening to the views and beliefs of each other, by striving to understand each other, we could make that existence a fabulous thing!
The Venerable Bill Beagley
So, the time of year to celebrate St Francis is here, and we will be filling our church with animals to bless on Sunday October 1.
Francis must rank as one of Christianity's best known saints. Needless to say, I really like him. More so since a few years ago when I had a few beautiful weeks enjoying Tuscany in Italy. We visited Francis' hometown of Assisi in the neighbouring Province of Umbria. However, you did not have to travel far in that area to find the marks of Francis everywhere. One village we lived in, Anghiari, had at the top of its main street an ancient church and monastery marking a place where St Francis planted a wooden cross in the ground. This is level of veneration of Francis you see in Italy. This is why there was such jubilant celebration there when the present Pope took Francis' name when he was elevated to the Holy See.
You see, the reason I love to travel is to meet famous people. Although Francis lived just short of 800 years before I got there, you meet him everywhere in Tuscany and Umbria. He is one of the saints who, the more you look for him, the more you meet the bloke, and find yourself liking him. And the more that bloke teaches you.
He was born into the luxurious wealth of the time and lived as a pampered party animal. He joined in the great adventure of war, but was caught and imprisoned and then later became extremely ill. These experiences brought him to a spiritual awakening that led him to discard and shun his wealth and live in complete poverty.
I personally admire this capacity to radically reevaluate what is important in life, to totally change your view of the world and its values. I am in awe of the incredible clarity Francis showed in his ability to see what is good and cling to it and totally cast off that which is an impediment to that good value.
Francis shook the world around him. His radical view of what constituted a life lived well affected many who met him, pushing him almost begrudgingly to establish and lead an order of religious brothers, and eventually, with Claire of Assisi, sisters, who admired and wanted to follow Francis' holy way of life. It is almost disturbing to try to reconcile the qualities of extreme humility with the powerful leadership that comes out of the stories of Francis' ministry.
Taking the humblest of positions to shake the most powerful authorities – in this I see Francis following as close as any ever have the footsteps of Jesus.
I truly identify with Francis in his desire to head out into the forest regularly to immerse himself in solitude. These times are when he was seen by other brothers in the woods preaching to the birds in the trees and ministering to wild animals and even a ferocious wolf that had killed people near the town of Gubbio. It is from this, and Francis' own teaching that all the world's creatures were created by God and worthy of our compassion, that he is the patron saint of animals, nature and the environment.
Perhaps I was most moved before I even arrived at Assisi. As you drive across the valley, passing dry ploughed fields, the city appears before you rising up the hillside on the other side of the valley. I made the driver stop so I could take it in and photograph it. It was truly breathtaking beauty. When I read Revelation 21:2, it is what I see in my mind.
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
For all his humility, Francis must have been a pretty impressive dude for his admirers to have built this in his honour.
These characters we call saints – their purpose is not to be somehow holier and superior to us. They should be our guides and friends on this journey of faith that brings us back to our God. But in the great communion of saints, Francis is one of the ones I feel to most comfortable falling in next to.
It is a detail I think many people miss, but have you noticed that the four stone crosses that top each gable of our church are uniquely different? I had noticed, but when I recently climbed the scaffolding of the new Parish Centre, I was able to photograph them. It left me wondering why those 18th century builders decided to choose a different cross for each high point of our beautiful church. Perhaps we will never truly know.
The Orthodox Cross appears above the front door. This is a style of cross portrayed by Churches of the Orthodox East, which has two and often three cross bars. All crosses, of course, have the cross bar to which Jesus' hands were nailed. Orthodox crosses often add the small crossbar above representing the sign Pilate placed on the Cross, and sometimes also or instead, another below to represent the support for Jesus' feet. Often this lower cross bar is sloped down to the left, and thus up to the right. This represents Jesus' two journeys of descent into hell and ascent into heaven.
The form we see in our cross was adopted in Byzantium, and later by the Russian Orthodox Church and especially popularised in the East Slavic countries.
The cross above the nave altar, the most central on our roof, appears to be a St Thomas' Cross. The arms of the cross have 'shoots' coming out, representing the tree of life with new life growing out from its branches. It is a very ancient style of cross used by the 'Mar Toma' or Saint Thomas Christians, often also known as Syrian Christians or Nasrani. They are centred in Kerala, in India, following the tradition that they were founded by Jesus' disciple Thomas whose apostolic mission took him to India.
At the end of the roof above the High Altar is a Celtic Cross. The Celtic cross features a nimbus or ring around the central point of the cross. It emerged in Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages. A nimbus represents a cloud, ring or halo, which in the art of ancient mythologies surrounded the presence or the head of a sacred being. So it is that placing it centrally on a Christian cross represents the divinity of the one who hung upon it.
This style of ringed cross became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the Celtic British islands, especially in regions evangelised by Irish missionaries, from the 9th through the 12th centuries.
The fourth cross, and the only one not mounted in a line running centrally from east to west, is above the Choir Vestry, facing north. It appears to be a Lazarus Cross. At the end of each arm is a trefoil, so this style of cross is sometimes called a 'trefly cross'. Originally a trefoil was a three leaved European pea plant, but in sculpture indicates a three leaved end to an extremity. The use of three rounded or pointed leaves on crosses is a Trinitarian symbol, representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The name Lazarus Cross comes from the time of the Crusades, when it was combined with a green Maltese cross, to form the insignia of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus. This order began in the 12th century establishing hospitals for lepers in Jerusalem, and later becoming an order of knights fighting for the Church in the Crusades. After the loss of the Crusades, the Order settled in Italy and France, and still exists today.
So our crosses represent the churches of Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East, India, Jerusalem, Italy, France, Britain and Ireland. The thing that immediately strikes me is that Jesus commanded the Apostles “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) The origin of each cross shows how they obeyed that command. As they took the Word they proclaimed in every direction they travelled out into all the world. Each of the countries mentioned spread out like a great arc around the world – the known world of Jesus' time anyway.
So our crosses sit up there and proclaim Jesus who came for all people in all places around our globe. All should feel welcome here to hear his word and see his love expressed by us, his children. Look up, and let the message carved from stone by those Victorian era stonemasons speak to you and encourage you to take up the task our Lord gave us.
The Holy Trinity: Our church and parish are dedicated to it and during this month we will celebrate the annual festival the Church gives in its honour. But have you ever wondered what it actually is?
It is probably one of the most troublesome concepts in Christian thinking. I can assure you, in the theological colleges throughout the world, it is the topic students most fear studying! It is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yes, we all know that. The problem is trying to work out HOW it is.
Other religions confront Christianity and demand an explanation. How can you say you have one God, when you talk about having three? So we reply, it is not three gods, it the three natures or persons of the one God. So the questions come flooding back: Where was God the Father when God was being the Son? Where are the Father and the Son if you say God is the Spirit? If your creed says the Spirit 'proceeds' from the Father and the Son, how can you say the Spirit is equal to the Father and Son? Which came first? And which is most important?
Every time you approach the Trinity, you come away with more questions than answers!
I have a thing I say when people are talking about God and making major statements that define exactly what God is – If you think you fully and completely understand God, go back and see if you can find where you went wrong!
God must be more than our minds can fully encompass. Try to imagine the distance from where you are now to the furthest point in the world from you. (If you are in Williamstown, then it is a point in the North Atlantic about halfway between Spain and New York). Can you picture exactly how far that is? No. You turn it into an abstract figure – 20,037 and a half kilometres. Or you picture a map of the world and say, “It's from the green bit there to the blue bit there!”
If you cannot picture the size of the world without reducing it to understandable, finite concepts, how could you find words that fully and completely explain the God that created it?
So why do we reduce God to a set of words that could never fully encapsulate all that God must be? Holy Trinity? We do it because of what the words themselves teach us about God.
God the Father
In ancient times it was believed all life emanated from fathers. Before they knew about DNA, they believed fathers put babies inside mothers where they grew to emerge as new people. God the Father, then, meant God the source of all living, all life. I am completely comfortable with the concept of God the Mother, God the parent, God the progenitor. God the Creator who brought into being that most wondrous thing – life.
God the Son
Again, the ancients saw a man's son as the being of the father emerging in a new human. Jesus was the being of his heavenly father sharing our human life with us. We use the word 'incarnate' which literally means 'having taken on flesh'. For me, this is the truly amazing bit. God who created this miracle of human life also knows what it is like to live it. All the happiness, sadness, triumphs, defeats and struggles of it and even the pain of death that ends it.
God the Holy Spirit
Even though God knows us that well, that intimately, with all our flaws and failings, God still wants to hang around with us. In the Spirit we know God will always be there with us. And even better, that God wants us to find our way to God's perfect existence and wants us to share it forever.
Knowing God as Holy Trinity is knowing God to be everything we need to fulfill our lives and progress to that perfect life beyond it. God is everything in perfect harmony. That is what we mean when we say the name 'Holy Trinity'.
On Sunday, in the wake of the Anglican Church's response to the Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse, I spoke to our congregation hoping to clarify the issue that the Anglicans received the most strident criticism for and for which our Primate and Archbishop had expressed our sense of shame.
Essentially our Church was criticized because while we can reach agreement on our failures and what needs to be done to move forward, the twenty-three Dioceses of the Province of Australia cannot agree upon the actual process of making those decisions and instituting change in our church. We know what we have to do, but cannot agree on how to do it.
After I made this short address, encouraging people to read and listen to the reporting and statements coming from the Royal Commission, several people expressed their concern about the Anglican position. They expressed the view that God, not Church hierarchies or officers, govern the Church. I believe this is an overly simplistic way of viewing the situation. The Church is the worldly gathering of Christians who believe in what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Having heard Jesus speak to us, having accepted and come to believe in his teaching, we then begin the journey, sometimes even the struggle, to live lives that accord with that belief. We do this because Jesus has shown us that every such effort will bring us closer to God, and to the Kingdom prepared for us beyond this life. Jesus showed us on the cross the lengths to which God was ready to go to bring us home. Knowing all this does not make us perfect, it shows that God's perfection has been placed within our reach. That it is the hope that can encourage and guide us in this life. But once again, it does not make us perfect. Read John 8:2-12 to get Jesus' view on people who consider themselves so righteous that they have the right to sit in judgment on others.
The Church is the worldly gathering of Christians - just that. It is the people in this dark and sinful world who have seen the light and are struggling towards it. For many in our world that struggle is a difficult and painful one. In the balance of things, Australian Christians have got it pretty easy. We can choose from churches to suit every taste or aesthetic desire. Why are there so many different denominations of God’s people? Because humanity cannot even make how you believe in God a thing that unites us.
Human nature makes us want to stand up and say “If you don't see it the way I see it – you must be wrong and I reject you!” It amuses me a little to see that those who condemn the church for not being able to agree are themselves not agreeing! That we as humans never seem able to agree, to find harmony with each other is what I define as the source of human sin. The fuel that powers it is self-importance, self-centredness and self-satisfaction. As I have often commented, in sermons and elsewhere, note the prefix of all those words.
Yes, I agree that it is a sin that our Anglican Dioceses cannot find a way to agree on how to implement the rules, strategies and actions to achieve that which we all agree must be achieved. But it is a human sin, one that permeates every part of human society. It is the same sin that nurtures sexism, racism, ageism and all the isms that blight human society.
But pointing fingers never changed anything for the better. Our dwindling church congregations throughout the world, or more particularly the developed world, are the result of the church being seen to be critical rather than constructive, condemning rather caring. Nobody wants that, and I have never heard God saying it was part of the deal. The deal is “Love one another as I have loved you.” God is aware that the more you really try to live up to that, the harder you realize it is to achieve. But I have nearly always found that the greater the effort, then ultimately, the greater the prize.
Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Well, for most of us, the holidays are over, and it is back to the humdrum workaday life. Other than because we like them, why do we have holidays? Don't you get a weekend every week? Why should you have more time off? (I'm sure there are company owners all over the place asking that very question – but those are not the issues I am going into here!) Holidays make us feel good. On my breaks, I do a number of things. I have in the last few years journeyed back into one of the joys of my childhood, the making of Airfix models of fighter planes. I also love to read and paint.
All these pass-times of mine have one common factor – while you are doing them, the rest of the world retreats into the background. These pursuits require your whole attention, so the rest of your life has to sit quietly somewhere else while you occupy yourself in gluing part 54 to part 55 to make the accurate fuselage assembly, or carefully mixing up exactly the right shade of ultramarine blue with a tinge of green and applying it just so to the canvas. Of course, reading means you can depart from the real world and immerse your mind in whatever exotic existence the author has created for you, and thrill to the adventures unrolled by the novelist's art.
So, while I am actually occupied by something, it is beautifully restful, because it puts on hold all the things of usual daily life that tire you out and use up your energies all the other times. By giving your time to these activities, your 'turn off' the exhausting duties of the rest of the year. And don't you feel refreshed when you do! Well, I do anyway! So, is holiday just a way to make us feel better? I'm pretty sure that's a good enough reason for most people, but actually, that is not where it all began.
The word holiday goes right back to Anglo-Saxon English of the 5th to 6th century with the words 'halig daeg' (literally holy day), meaning a day reserved for religious worship, for which the normal daily work was put aside to allow all people to dedicate the day to religious festivities. This was so much a part of community life, even that far back, the two words became one, haligdaeg, which over the following 15 centuries became the word 'holiday' we know today.
Again in old English, these 'holy days' were more commonly called 'feasts' which goes back through Latin to a word meaning to celebrate or be joyous. Since so often, this celebration would include a whole village or community joining together in a special community meal, which could include dancing and story-telling related to the holy event or saint being celebrated, we get the meaning we give to the word 'feast' today of a sumptuous meal.
The Christian Church had three types of feast: the most common was every Sunday. Now, most people think we do not work on Sunday because it is the Old Testament Sabbath, marking the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested having created the world on the previous six days. No, that is the Jewish Sabbath, which is on Saturday. The Church, from Apostolic times in the first century, declared Sunday a Feast Day, because we celebrate that Jesus' resurrection occurred on that day. In the year 321, the Emperor Constantine proclaimed that all Sundays should be a public holiday, and so was the inventor of the weekend. You may wish to remember him in your prayers!
The next type of Feast was the Moveable Feast. The most important of these was Easter, which, as we know, moves up and down the calendar through its link to the Paschal full moon. If you did not understand that was why Easter is a different day each year, look, it's all too complex to go into here – grab me sometime and I'll explain it to you. Then of course, Lent, Good Friday, Ascension, Pentecost and Holy Trinity are all tied to Easter, and so move up and down with it. So they are 'moveable' feasts.
Then the final group are the Immoveable Feasts. I bet you guessed it – they are the ones, such as Christmas, Epiphany and Saints Days that fall on the same calendar date every year. Only a few of these actually date earlier than the fourth century. Christmas was not really being generally celebrated until the sixth century, and even then, on a number of different days in different churches.
One thing remains true for them all though. They were not about having a day off work, as I feel most people think of holidays today. They were about taking a day out of your time to praise and thank God for blessing us. In the immediate sense, for the good things in our lives and the world around us. But as you can see in the survey above, for the most part they originated in the desire to thank God for the moment Jesus arose from the dead. In that moment, Jesus established the great Gospel of Christianity – Death was conquered so that our lives can take us, if we follow him, to the eternal and perfect life God wants to share with us.
In ancient times, Christians saw that as a thing worth putting your daily work aside for, and fixing your gaze for the moment on it. To celebrate the fact of it and sing out your thanks and praise to God for it. To join joyously with your family, friends and neighbours and share the exhilaration of knowing it.
So that is why we have holidays. We can still have the sleep in, the beaches and barbeques, the roast animals of great variety with all the trimmings and side dishes, and I am keeping my Airfix models (I already have a Dambusters Lancaster ready for my mid-year break).
But while we are immersing ourselves in all that recreation and rest, remember to give thanks to the one that gave it all to you, to the God that waits to give you the “Peace that the world cannot give.”
Biology affirms that there is only one human species. This is proven by the fact that any human couple, no matter what race, colour, creed or country they each come from can have children together. Christian scripture agrees – every human being has been created in the image of God. There is only one kind of human. Yet it then horrifies me as I see news of racist demonstrations and riots that our society seems to have so many people that are capable of loving their dogs, but not their neighbours.
So, why do we celebrate Christmas? In the Christian line of belief, what part does Christmas play? Two of the Gospels, Mark and John, do not even include a reference to the birth of Jesus. Have a look – in Mark 1:9, Jesus makes his first appearance, a fully grown adult, to be baptised by John. In John, the Word is the great transcendent spiritual presence existing fully from before creation. The man Jesus again first appears fully grown at 1:29 to be baptised and proclaimed by John. The writers of both these gospels did not see his birth or childhood as something required in the presentation of the story of Jesus.
Of the other two, Matthew's narrative is not really a story of his birth, it is a story of the reactions of the world to Jesus' coming. The wisdom of the Magi searches for him, the lust for power of Herod tries to destroy him and the love of his father Joseph protects and saves him. It has always fascinated me how many Christmas cards have the Magi depicted on them – theirs is actually not a Christmas narrative. That is why we read their story at Epiphany, a couple of weeks after Christmas in January.
So, really, it is only the Gospel of Luke that sees the events of Jesus' birth as significant enough to be fully included in the holy scriptures. The familiar story of a manger in a stable, the shepherds and angels – that is all from the book of Luke. By the way – the ubiquitous donkey of all the Christmas cards – not there! It is likely a pregnant teenager Mary walked the hundred plus kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No wonder she was ready to drop the bundle when she got there!
Another historical hypothesis I have considered is that the reason Mary was in the stable for the birth was that she was in labour. There was no room in the public area of the inn for a woman about to give birth because of the Jewish custom around contact with blood. The Law dictated that any woman giving birth was to be isolated for a week if she had a boy, two weeks if a girl. It is all there in Leviticus 12 if you want to check! In many cultures, including Australian aboriginal, a woman must separate herself from shared spaces during birth. As Mary was away from her home town, her only option would be to separate herself to the shelter of the inn's stable. But that is just a theory of mine.
Back to what is there in the Christmas narrative of Luke. Take note again, as in Matthew, most of the space is taken up not by the birth itself, but with the 'parallel' birth of John the Baptist, the interaction of Mary with her 'kinswoman' Elizabeth, John's mother, and then the angels and shepherds. It is worth noting, the birth of John the Baptist takes up 44 verses, Mary visiting Elizabeth takes up 18, the actual birth of Jesus only 7 and the story of the shepherds a further 13 verses. Again, as in Matthew, the birth itself seems a less important part of the story than the effect it has on the people around it.
So we have this great celebration, probably the one Christian event that touches more people and is identified with Christianity in a greater way than any other, that we decorate our homes and streets for, cook special meals for, buy piles of presents for, send stacks of cards and wishes for, close our offices, factories and shops for – and it is contained in 7 verses of one gospel!
Now, I get Easter. The event of Jesus dying and rising from the tomb carries in it the whole Christian belief that Jesus has conquered sin by conquering its greatest component – death – to bring any who will follow him into God's eternal perfect existence. THAT merits celebration! In Jesus' earthly ministry, all that he did and taught guides us in how to live our life in the faith that believes God loves and accepts us. But what significance does Jesus' birth have? How does knowing the circumstances of his birth advance God's kingdom or bring us closer to it? Why does it merit being one of the two most significant celebrations of the Christian year? What do we gain by knowing it?
Here are my thoughts on the matter. What I celebrate at Christmas is that God came here and was one of us. Luke 1:23, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ This knocks me over just a bit. God decided to be with us. Remember – God did not have to do that.
This is the significance to me of the story of Noah. That ancient story tells us what God could have done with a disloyal, self-obsessed, unrewarding creation such as humanity has proven to be. It tells us what a logical God would have done. Get rid of this dud lot, and start again, to see if I can get them right this time! Lucky for humanity, what we have is a loving God that chooses to save us from ourselves instead.
God chose to be with us. Incarnation, literally meaning the taking on of flesh, was God's way of getting to the source of the problem and finding a way out for us. I say it again, because it is the part that leaves me totally amazed – God chose to be with us. Logic wouldn't do that, only love would.
Conception, pregnancy and birth are the way a human body takes on life and enters the world. That was Mary's gift to all humanity. Through that miracle of motherhood, she was the vessel in which God entered and shared our life.
There is another word that is important here, kenosis. It is a theological term drawn from the Greek word meaning 'to pour out' or 'to empty'. It is perhaps best conveyed in the words from the hymn in the letter to the Philippians, 2:5-7 Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
'The form of a slave' , the lowest of all humans. He not only poured out godliness to be human, he poured out any human glory or status or power to be the most humble of humans, a child born in poverty to insignificant parents. God chose to do all this for our sake. God did not seem to consider for a moment whether we deserved it or not, it would appear that was just not part of the plan. To quote Paul again, from the second letter to the Corinthians 8:9, For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
So there it is. My view on why this Christmas thing is something worth celebrating. We are not, to my mind, celebrating that a particular event happened, that a child was born sometime in history in a particular set of circumstances. We are celebrating that it WOULD happen. That God SO loved the world that he gave his only son. I like to really stress the SO. God SO loved the world. SO much. SO completely. SO unquestioningly. SO self-sacrificially. In that inexplicably overwhelming love, God chose to be with us. Emmanuel.
Have happy one! Bill.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)