COVID, Cradle, Cross. It is Christmas
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Reading: John 1:1-14
Well, here we are at Christmas Eve, and for all the pomp and circumstance we normally have; the magnificent lights, the faces smiling wide with expectation, this is a night we would shine with each other, and the Lord would shine upon us too. But not tonight. Nevertheless, there is still a profound sense that wherever you and your family are, the presence of the Christ child is there. I liken this to what I said to a friend of mine who I spoke to in the UK last week. I said that this is like Easter 2.0. On Easter we said that we miss you. On Christmas Eve I say, we miss you even more.
This past year, and the last nine months in particular, have been a time when human frailty has been revealed for what it really is. So many of us have been vulnerable. If we sneeze without a mask on, someone can become very ill. If we embrace somebody without PPE, they can die. With the gravesites that we have visited, sometimes due to COVID-19, there have been moments when we have looked at our loved ones through windows, because we cannot touch those behind them, we have seen the frailty of the human condition.
If there was ever a Christmas Eve that had power for us in all our frailty and vulnerability, and sends a strong message to us, it is this one that will go down in the annals of history.
The words that the Reverend Chris read from John’s Gospel a few moments ago are so relevant in our day: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word is, of course, the very creative power of God. Before all things were made, was the Word. The Word made the world. The Word existed before time as we know it. That Word, that power of God, both spoken and revealed, comes in the form of a child, and takes on flesh; the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. This night we honour the God who became flesh and dwelled among us.
There are two very profound images that speak to the way coming into the flesh transforms and lifts up our very human existence. The first image is that of the cradle, the manger, the place of Christ’s birth; God became flesh in a child. The manger that we normally have on Christmas Eve, when we have the pageant, is sitting here, right behind me. It is the cradle, it is the place where the Son of God, the Word, was born incarnate. This tremendous gift, unique among all gifts that have ever been given, is what we celebrate tonight. It was indeed a very earthy event. For all the things that are wrapped around the story of the birth of Jesus, which are divine in origin and speak with great power about the glory, the angelic powers, and all of heavens celebrating, the fact is, it was a human child that was born in Bethlehem.
Born into a situation that was made sad by the presence of an occupying power that made the parents go to a place to register themselves as a family, a form of subservience on the part of that family. It was a moment of immense danger, a time of unprecedented insecurity and uncertainty. It was followed, as we know, by the story of King Herod, who in a really earthy manner, felt threatened by the presence of a coming Messiah, so went about the killing of children, and Jesus having to flee to Egypt. This was an earthy event.
As much as I love, on Christmas Eve, as those who have attended the pageants know, to play Herod (I love to be the bad guy once a year). I realise that deep down, there is a reality behind all of that, that is dark. The Christ child who came, was vulnerable and came in the flesh. This was a moment in many ways, of great danger for Jesus and His family.
On the very first pageant that I did here twenty-two years ago, I remember having my guitar, getting ready to play Herod. I walked down the aisle, getting ready to come around the back and to process with the song that I had written. I did not realise that there were wires from all the lights and sound on the floor. I tripped over the wire and went head-first into the nativity scene in the narthex. I nearly destroyed it, and one of the young boys who was a centurion, said, “You know, you nearly crushed the baby Jesus.” What an image; Herod nearly crushing the baby Jesus. I thought, I'm actually going to be all right here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, if that is the truth! The vulnerability of Him coming in the flesh shows us God’s identification with us in our flesh.
It was also a joyous occasion. It was human joy. John describes the coming of Jesus as the true light, and he is the true light. He is the true light for those who struggle with the sins of the flesh and need forgiveness. He was there for those who were frail of the flesh, in the lepers, and he gave them a new life. For those rejected, the outcasts, he was a source of joy. For the blind, the mute, those frail in body, Jesus came in the flesh to identify with them as the true light, as the good news. Jesus understood, and there was great joy in the presence of his coming. He came as his name suggests, as Emmanuel. Look at the language: “with us” – with we frail human beings.
Next Sunday Rev. Lori will tell us more about the names of Jesus and why they're important, but Emmanuel, God with us, show’s God’s identification with our frailty and brokenness. He came as a Jew, as a person from a lineage and a people. He came to fulfil the expectations of the prophet Isaiah, of which I spoke last week. This was the arrival of the coming of the Messiah, this was the fulfilment of Israel’s wishes. This was an affirmation of Israel’s eternal importance. This was not a mythical figure. This was not a dystopian zombie of modern movies. This was not an ethereal thought or a nice idea, representing some great trend. No, this was God in the flesh, in person, in a cradle, coming for us.
He was also revealed in another symbol: the symbol of the cross. The cross and the cradle are inseparable. You cannot speak of one without the other. You cannot speak about the cross if Jesus was not fully human, if he was not real, in the flesh. It would not have been the death of a real human being, it would have simply been a symbol. You cannot talk about the cradle and the coming of God to redeem the world, without understanding the nature of the cross, which was the suffering of that human for us, fully God, fully human; cross and cradle combined.
It is no mistake that the gospels, when Jesus was crucified, recorded his words – who to? His mother: “Mother, behold your son.” The one who had been at the cradle, was at the foot of the cross. This was God in the flesh, and Mary knew it. Mary could identify with all those who suffer the loss of a loved one, with parents who have lost children, the saddest of all things.
The cradle and the cross cannot be separated. God came in the flesh.
Many years ago, in Nova Scotia, I received a call the week before Christmas from a man who said to me, “Reverend Stirling, I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind coming and visiting my wife. She is gravely ill.” He went on, “but before you come, I want to just say one thing: if you decide that you come and you do not want to stay, we will not hold it against you. You can leave.”
Well, that was one of the most daunting requests I’d ever heard but I went and was taken to a bedroom, where, lying in bed, was a woman who was emaciated from cancer of the face. It was the most shocking thing I had ever seen. I stayed with her for a while, and we prayed, and I was given a strength I never thought I’d have. I got into my car afterwards, after having her husband thanked me for coming. It was the week before Christmas and I got out my New Testament, I put it on my lap in the car, and thought about my sermon that I was going to preach on the Sunday, from the prologue of John’s Gospel. I opened it up and there were the words, “The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.” God is there. God is there in our broken-ness, God identifies with us. The cradle and cross come together.
This is Christmas where the cradle and the cross intersect in a whole new way. In 1038 the very first phrase that was used of Christmas, was probably Cristes messe, which really means Christ-Mass. The coming together of the memorial of Christ’s death, with the presence of Christ the Redeemer. The two become one, and in this becomes our joy, and our triumph. We are not left alone with our fleshliness. We have now, in Christ, someone who takes that flesh and redeems it and makes it new, that reconciles us with the very God who made us, and brings God to us, and us to God, in a way that cannot be broken.
In the most glorious passage from the book of Colossians, Paul describes how, just like John, the Word was the beginning, and the world was made through Him. Then there is this last part, and this is the part that really hits us this Christmas: “For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.”
In the fullness, he came to dwell amongst us in the cradle. On the cross, he reconciled and redeemed all things. God had come to us, and God had said, in all our frailties and broken-ness, in all our joys and excitements and celebrations, I have come to you, and I am with you, and you are mine.
COVID cannot replace Christmas. COVID cannot overturn the cross. COVID cannot remove the cradle. We have Christ-mass, and for this, of all years, we say, hallelujah! Christ was born. Amen.