Mind the Gap – the hidden sadness in the nativity stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dark side to Christmas. My friend Andy wrote a very moving article reflecting on what this Christmas would be like for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve also just read the book Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann where she explores what it means to meet God in the darkest moments of life. At my placement church in Leeds there are many people who visit each week to collect food from the foodbank and there are others who have fled their countries and live here in fear. All of this has combined to make me think again about the message of Christmas and what this season of joy might mean to these different people.

When we read the bible, it is sometimes the things that are not said that can be significant. We are fortunate that our gospel writers wrote very intentionally – their versions of the life of Christ and the early Christians weren’t written on the back of an envelope – they were carefully crafted. If you look closely at the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke there is quite a lot of hidden sadness.

  • In Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message Gabriel brought her, she said ‘yes’ to shame, to ostracism in her community, to the risk of losing Joseph. Imagine for a moment what her pregnancy must have been like for her.
  • Joseph is compelled by the hated occupying forces to take his heavily pregnant fiancee all the way to Bethlehem just for his name to be registered – presumably so that the Romans can leech even more from his people. Joseph, in agreeing to stay with Mary, must have attracted some comments as well from his village – everyone would have assumed he was the father of the child.
  • The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, on the outskirts of the city being kept there both physically and metaphorically by wider society. What hardship had they encountered in their lives and what would have carried on after they had met Jesus?
  • The wise men had to change all their plans after meeting Jesus, they had to go home by a different, probably dangerous, possibly costly route. What would that journey home for them have been like?
  • As we can see, in amongst all the joy is sadness. In the call of God there is both loss and gain.

    I don’t know if this gives me comfort or not. I guess it does because if it wasn’t there, I don’t think I could believe the story – it wouldn’t feel real.

    I got irritated in Waterstone’s yesterday looking in the so-called Religion section. There, next to the bibles was AC Grayling’s alternative to the bible ‘The Good Book’. A cursory glance at it immediately spoke to me of emptiness. The reason the bible is the ultimate Good Book is because it contains the disturbing reality of human life – not a sanitised version of what we think it ought to be. I think I’d rather have the warts and all version of how God deals with people than someone’s lofty ideas of how life should be. This is the amazing mystery we celebrate at Christmas, that in our confused and often sad lives, Jesus still chooses to come and be present to us, in the dirt, whilst others whisper about the inappropriateness of it all.

    Immanuel. God with us.

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    O Emmanuel – advent antiphon: a reflection

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    O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,

    the hope of the nations and their Saviour:

    Come and save us, O Lord our God.

    cf Isaiah 7.14

    Listen to this antiphon:

    So we’ve reached day 7, the final antiphon: O Emmanuel. Emmanuel, of course, means ‘God with us’. There is no greater promise than that God will be with us in our darkness and suffering and we see this fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Think of the circumstances into which Jesus is born: out of wedlock,  nowhere to call ‘home’, a refugee (shortly after the birth there is the flight into Egypt), an occupied country, poor. Then, throughout his life Jesus aligns himself with those on the outside, the Other, until he himself is cursed by his own people and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. God with us, with us in the darkness, with us in the trials of life. And what does Jesus say at the end of Matthew’s gospel, his very last words to his disciples?

    And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

    – Matthew 28:20

    This promise continues for us. Love came down at Christmas and stayed.

    O come o come emmanuel

    I hope now, whenever you sing the carol ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ you will remember these 7 antiphons, these 7 signs pointing to something of the character of God.

    I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Here’s one of my favourite versions of this carol:

    O come, O come, Emmanuel,
    And ransom captive Israel,
    That mourns in lonely exile here
    Until the Son of God appear.

    Rejoice! Rejoice!
    Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
    Who orderest all things mightily;
    To us the path of knowledge show,
    And teach us in her ways to go.

    O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
    Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
    From depths of hell Thy people save,
    And give them victory over the grave.

    O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
    Our spirits by Thine advent here;
    Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
    And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

    O come, Thou Key of David, come,
    And open wide our heavenly home;
    Make safe the way that leads on high,
    And close the path to misery.

    O come, O come, great Lord of might,
    Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
    In ancient times once gave the law
    In cloud and majesty and awe.

    O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
    An ensign of Thy people be;
    Before Thee rulers silent fall;
    All peoples on Thy mercy call.

    O come, Desire of nations, bind
    In one the hearts of all mankind;
    Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
    And be Thyself our King of Peace.

    Advent-ure Calendar Day 24: Love – Isaiah 9:6-7 – Unto us a son is born

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    For to us a child is born, 
       to us a son is given, 
       and the government will be on his shoulders. 
    And he will be called 
       Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, 
       Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

    Of the greatness of his government and peace 
       there will be no end. 
    He will reign on David’s throne 
       and over his kingdom, 
    establishing and upholding it 
       with justice and righteousness 
       from that time on and forever. 
    The zeal of the LORD Almighty 
       will accomplish this.

    Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV)

     

    Tonight we celebrate God becoming one of us, with all of these qualities – wonderful, counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – packed into a tiny, frail human baby form.

    He chose to come into our world into an outpost of the Roman empire that was full of rioting and terrorist activity, into a city full of people where he was not welcomed, the only place for the new born baby a feeding trough for animals and a fragile political situation which meant his parents had to flee their home as refugees to Egypt.

    This is our God, human and yet divine, our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    Emmanuel, God with us.