As we celebrate Christmas and come to the end of another year, we have some space to reflect on opportunities we have taken or not in the past year. My prize goes to 86 year-old Betty from Ottery St Mary. Betty had spent the last 10 Christmases alone after the death of her husband. This year, rather than feeling sorry for herself, she has invited 40 people who would be spending Christmas alone and paid for a Christmas lunch in a pub for all of them. She has seized the opportunity and covered emptiness with a shelter of generosity. Another prize for straightforwardness went to George ( not his real name), one of the homeless people in this neighbourhood. A couple of days ago, he rang my doorbell and said “I’m feeling empty” to which I said “ And what would fill your emptiness” which brought the reply “£13.50 for a bottle of Gordon’s Gin.”
“Covering our emptiness with a shelter” is close to the central message of Christmas, but here the message would read "“covering our emptiness with a tent.” The Gospel according to John uses this phrase to describe what happened at Christmas “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” A better English translation of the original Greek is “pitched his tent among us.” In this phrase, the radical insecurity which is our human condition is conveyed well. When I reflected on this, three things stood out for me at the end of this year, which have helped me understand better this central message of our faith. I started the year in Fr Larry’s Parish in the Philippines, a few weeks after it had been blasted and flattened by Typhoon Haiyan. We met in a church with no roof and amidst a community traumatised by the loss of everything. I ended this year earlier this month amongst the dispossessed people of Northern Iraq, living in disused building sites and portakabins since they fled the barbarities of the so-called Islamic state. Listening to harrowing stories from children who had lost their parents, from parents who had lost their children, and from women and men who told of rape was an almost out of body experience, as I placed myself in their position. But these are not crushed people, and in the ultimate sense they are not victims. They are strong, faith-filled and ready to reclaim what they have lost. The community to which they have fled is caring for them as best they can, and we have done our small part in helping that work. The Christmas word which sums up this hope in the midst of radical insecurity for me is Light. In between these two experiences at the beginning of the year and at the end, I listened to a life changing lecture from a Russian Orthodox theologian on the meaning of death and creation for which I use the second Christmas word Life. So it’s these two things I’d like to speak briefly about tonight. Radical Insecurity or Light and Death and Creation or Life.
First, radical insecurity, or Light. Light comes in the darkness and it always wins. Light a candle rather than curse the darkness is the message here. The Christian message brings light into the darkness through the birth of Jesus Christ. Pitching his tent among us conveys theologically the radical insecurity which is the human condition. Christ, born into a cave holding animals, and Christ forced to flee with his family to Egypt to escape violence. Our human condition is one of total and radical insecurity, and it is this condition which God embraces in the birth of Jesus Christ. People who have lost everything, be that from natural disaster in the Philippines or anywhere else, or from war and human brutality as in the people of Iraq, Syria, Southern Sudan, Pakistan, or anywhere else know this well. Those who live in this country may not experience these things first hand, but in our globalised world, we all feel them. We feel too with the bereaved people of Glasgow, one year on from another tragedy in that great city. We may be more likely to understand the notion of radical insecurity when we are recently bereaved, lost our job, lost our home, and have become dependent, as a growing number of people are, on food banks and hand-outs. We feel this now perhaps more sharply than in recent years. Comfortable, liberal democracies- until now smugly aware of their own stability and supposed security - are rattled by the threat of terrorism from without and violence within. Michael Marshall’s book, Flame in the Mind, puts it like this: “It seems as though God simply will not let us settle down or make the mistake of substituting a resting place or staging post for our ultimate home.” Our true security is found, not in externals, but in the deep knowledge of the light which Jesus Christ brings into the darkness. Both in the Philippines and in Iraq this year, I was privileged to be strengthened by people who may have lost everything but who are sustained by a deep faith. They know that Jesus Christ brings Light in the Darkness. This is Light.
Now the second experience which for me has been transformative this year. Creation and Death – and for this my word is Life. As you know, the Gospel of John which we heard tonight mirrors Genesis in what is technically called typology. The Genesis narrative opens with the words “In the Beginning” - this is mirrored by John consciously as he begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” If John’s account is therefore of the new creation in Jesus Christ, what completes creation? In the words of the Russian Orthodox theologian, it is the three words of the dying Jesus on the Cross “It is finished.” It is no accident that these words are found in the Gospel of John only, and not in the other Gospels. The words do not refer to his own life on earth, but to creation which is completed through the creator being crucified on the cross. In other words, if birth is the beginning of the human experience, it is death which completes it and makes us fully human. Our true humanity is yet to be revealed – so everything from our birth to our death is characterised by radical insecurity, and we shelter ourselves in a fragile tent. This is life.
It is into this world of radical insecurity that Jesus Christ is born as the Light and Life of the world. His title in Hebrew is Emmanuel- “God is with us.” This startling claim is what we call the Incarnation. God in Jesus stands alongside us and with us. The tent indicates that nothing material is permanent, and creation is yet to be completed and our own life and our own death is still working towards that ultimate completion. This is a message of tremendous encouragement and deep and real joy. Taken to heart, it gives our lives and our death meaning and perspective. May you discover this again for yourself this Christmas. Whatever this year has been for you, a good year, a bad year, a mediocre year may this message encourage you. And whatever the reason you are here this evening, may this message be something which will encourage and bless you and all of us in the year ahead. It’s a message of real joy and real hope at the beginning of another year, where, in fact, nothing is the same any more because of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is the One who fills and covers our emptiness. Whatever you’re doing, and however you’re spending it, may the Light and Life of Christmas be a real blessing for you and for all our world.
Happy Christmas and a Blessed 2015