'Challenging Christmas Traditions'

This is a short sermon that Rev Eve preached at Hull Collegiate School Carol Service on 14th December 2016 Rev Matt tweeted that it was 'stimulating but controversial'... See what you think!

Picture the Christmas card scene... Mary, dressed in blue, pale skinned and wide eyed, smiles down at her new baby boy, who is asleep in the manger - not hungry, gassy, or grumpy in any way. Joseph looks on in pride at his illegitimate son, not worried at all about the implications of having a new child in a town where they will soon have to flee for fear of Herod trying to eradicate any threat to his rule from babies being referred to as 'King'. Shepherds gaze respectfully on surrounded by well behaved sheep, while wise men in spectacular dress offer amazing gifts, looking immaculate even though they have just journeyed for months. And all in an isolated stable, with the lights of the town in the distance, no friends or family to be seen. Calm, serene...and unrealistic?

 We might feel like our Christmas scene at home doesn't reflect those picture postcard Christmas Cards that we spend so long writing and posting at this time. My family get on well with one another, enjoying a Christmas at home with the normal festivities, and yet there will still be arguments over the thickness of the gravy, about who controls the remote, and who does the washing up. Families, friendships and teams are complicated, even at the best of times, and sometimes hearing cheery Christmas songs on the radio for the umpteenth time, or realising you've forgotten that one present for someone you won't see again for ages can bring us to wonder what this Christmas stuff is all about. 

 I have recently been reading about Christmas traditions that we inherit, through traditions, artistic impressions of the nativity scenes, various ways of reading Old Testament texts into the first Christmas story - and I've been struck by what I've found. One of the main traditions that is has challenged for me (and there are a few to choose from...) is Jesus being born in a stable, and as is often depicted on our Christmas cards, Mary and Joseph being isolated and removed from the hustle and bustle of family life, amid a huge census in the town.

 Part of this comes from how we have read 2 verses in Luke's account of the first Christmas - 'While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.' We imagine the children's nativity play, with Mary and Joseph knocking on various 'inns' or hotels, being turned away until one helpful yet long-sufferinginn keeper's wife sneaks the desperate couple around the back to the stable, where the animals are kept, as a last resort.

 But the word translated as 'inn' here could just as easily be translated as 'spare room' or 'guest room' (and is in some Bible translations!), and is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe a room in someone's house (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11) - not quite the same as our western idea of an 'inn', or a B&B. Put this together with the context of the story, that Joseph was travelling back to his home town where loads of his family would be and no-one in that culture would turn away a family member in need, and it's very likely that Mary and Joseph turned up to the family home, and other relatives were already in the spare room or on the flat roof, so they ended up crashing slap bang in the middle of the living room of the family house, contractions and all! But what about the animals? Well at that time, the lower compartment of the living area of the single-room home would be used to shelter the animals, with hollows in the ground containing straw - the feeding trough, or manger for the animals.

Does this change how you think about the first Christmas? Jesus has still come, Word made Flesh, and 'moved into the neighbourhood' as the Message paraphrase puts John 1:14. The lowly shepherds are still the first to meet the Messiah. Mary and Joseph still had to flee from the threat of Herod. But Jesus is born as one of us, into the midst of real, human life.

 So imagine you've got the whole family for Christmas, your spare rooms are full, the cooking is underway, the family dogs are eating their Christmas treats,  and there's a knock on the door. It's your new sister-in-law with your brother Joe who you're weren't quite expecting, but who you couldn't possibly turn away, because, well, she'sheavily pregnant and where else would they go, you're family! So you open the sofa bed in the living room, and before you can hand her some mulled wine she's gone into labour! Luckily friend down the road is a midwife, and before you know it a Christmas miracle has occurred right in the midst of family life, chaotic, messy, yet beautiful and awesome. The newborn is placed gently into a clean dog bed because there is no crib.

 This version of the nativity may not be the one we see on Christmas cards, but it might just be more authentic and maybe even more reassuring to us this Christmas time.

One writer notes : 'In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention.'[1]

Jesus is born into the centre of real, family life, he is not distant, but relates to every part of our lives. And he also wants to be a part of it - not to remain at a distance, safely tucked away in a stable until next year - but walk with us, alongside us, bring comfort, joy and guidance.

 While thinking about the first Christmas like this may challenge our traditions, it needn't deter us from singing our carols, supporting our loved ones in nativity plays, and buying beautiful Christmas Cards - that's part of the fun of the season! But we can be assured that Jesus is in the midst of life, messy and beautiful, bringing light and life right in the middle of the living room of our lives. Will we welcome him into the mess and beauty of our lives, or will we try and take him back to the stable, out of the way? Will we rearrange the furniture of our lives to make room for new life and light?

I pray that this Christmas you will be able to welcome Jesus in, in the midst of real, messy, beautiful family life.

[1] Ian Paul http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/ [Accessed 13/12/16].