Christmas Day - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Christmas Day

Luke 2: 1-14

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And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

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It's interesting, isn't it, how families tend to develop their own very distinctive traditions at Christmas.  I had a parishioner in my church in Birmingham called David, who was retired, and who had a very large house, so all of his rather large and extended family used to spend Christmas with him and his wife every year.

And there was a tradition in his family, that went back to the time when David's offspring were very small, that on Christmas Eve the children would sit round the kitchen table and decorate the Christmas cake that his wife had made.  They had a rather odd little collection of Christmas decorations that they had acquired over time - all slightly different sizes - there was a snowman and a Father Christmas and a rather disproportionately large reindeer, and it became a really important part of the excitement of Christmas Eve for the children to do this task together, the night before the big day itself.

Anyway, this tradition of decorating the cake continued, even after his children had grown up - they would still insist that, on Christmas Eve, the cake decorations would come out, and they would decorate the Christmas cake together - because it had become such an integral part of the tradition for them all.

One December, during the time that I knew him, David got out the Christmas cake decorations, which by this stage were over forty years old - and decided that the time had finally come for him to do something that he had been meaning to do for years.  The decorations were so old and battered, and worn - the snowman had lost his features, and the reindeer had a damaged antler - that he resolved that the time had finally come to invest in a new set.

Now as it happened there was a specialist cake shop near him, which sold cake decorations, and at Christmas time, as you can imagine, it was full of the most perfect little matching sets of beautiful cake decorations, which you could arrange to make proper little Christmas scenes - so he bought a box of them, which not only had Santa and a snowman - it had a beautiful little sleigh full of presents, and a couple of little snow-covered Christmas trees, and carol singers with little lanterns - absolutely exquisite - and he knew that everyone would absolutely love them.

So, Christmas Eve came, and the family all rolled up, and David's wife produced the cake, as she always did, which was iced and ready to be decorated, and he proudly presented his offspring with the beautiful new cake decorations.  (Bear in mind, by the way, that by this stage his children were all aged in their forties, and had children of their own.)  

They looked at him blankly: ''What's this?'  He beamed at them and said, 'I thought I would get some new cake decorations this year.'  David described to me how their eyes narrowed as they looked at him penetratingly and one of them said in a slightly chilly tone:  'So where are the real ones?'  (That was the word they used - the 'real' ones!) 

'Well,' David replied cheerily - 'they were so ancient, and were getting worn and so disgusting, I thought it was about time we replaced them, so I threw them out.'

'You did what?'  'You do realise that you have ruined Christmas for all of us, don't you!'   And apparently all four of them proceeded to sulk for the rest of Christmas - and they were aged in their forties!  It took them ages to forgive him his appalling act of desecration and treachery!

But it does demonstrate the power that traditions can have for us - partly because as human beings we like structures and patterns, and recognisable ways of doing things - particularly around significant events.  So much so that, even where they don't really exist, traditions have a habit of arising spontaneously.

In my lecturing days it always amused me that for our students, a 'college tradition' could be anything that had taken place for a period of three years - because nobody in the student body had been there longer than that, so that was as far back as the corporate student memory went.  It was as simple as that - but goodness me was it marshalled as a knock-down argument whenever any kind of change was mooted.

And interestingly enough many of the things that we assume to be integral to the celebration of Christmas today, and are very important to us for that reason - because we are creatures who need traditions - are things that are of surprisingly recent origin.

Christmas trees were decorated in Europe since the middle ages, but that tradition didn't make it to this country until the early C19 - and was famously popularised thanks to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort.  Christmas crackers were invented in 1847; the first Christmas card was designed in 1843.  At Christmas feasts the meat that was eaten here had for centuries been beef or goose, until turkey started to make an appearance, again in the Victorian era.

Even the word 'Christmas - Christ Mass - wasn't used until the eleventh century: before that Christians had simply taken over the Saxon midwinter festival of Yule, and referred to it by that name.  The celebration of the birth of Christ on 25th December was only formally established in Christendom in the early to mid-fourth century.  Some churches in Eastern Christendom calculate it by a different and earlier calendar, which is why today the Orthodox tend to celebrate it on 7th January.

Now, the reason I am telling you all this is emphatically not to debunk Christmas - quite the opposite: the traditions that we observe are incredibly important, on all kinds of levels, and we need them.  But rather I want to make the point that traditions are things that evolve, and that change over time, as things speak to us in new and different ways.

However, it does nevertheless leave us with a very important question which is this: what is it that lies at the very heart of Christmas - what is it that is truly timeless and changeless about what we are gathered here to celebrate today.  After all, it has to be something sufficiently significant and powerful, that we have been marking it for nearly two thousand years.  The Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, which tell the stories of the birth of Christ date back to the end of the first century AD - and they are writing down and refining stories that were already circulating by word of mouth.

The answer is that, at the heart of it all is something utterly simple, and yet massively and devastatingly significant, the impact and power of which each generation has discovered anew for itself throughout the past two millennia.

The poet John Betjeman has nailed this one far, far better than just about anybody else, in his poem entitled simply 'Christmas', which ends like this:

And is it true, and is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Merry Christmas!


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