One of the sad bits of being a bishop is that, not being part of any particular parish community, you don’t follow the ‘story’ of Christmas (or Easter or anything else) through together. It means you have to create your own consistency and not succumb to a fragmentary ‘living with the story’, picking it up only through various one-off engagements in parishes and institutions.
This year I have heard some great stories from parishes of how they are ‘living the story’, opening up the shape of Christmas in such a way that the familiar becomes refreshed and the mystery deepened. (One church had a stable built around and over the Communion table with the nativity scene built under and into it – and the Eucharist is celebrated from within the stable!)
So, we are now almost there. I am thinking through my sermons for Christmas Eve Midnight Communion at St Barnabas, Heaton, (about fifty metres from my house) and Christmas morning at Bradford Cathedral. Unlike many of my episcopal colleagues (who are clearly more focused than I am ), I find it hard to script something ahead of seeing the congregation. I know where I am going with each sermon and I have done the preparation, but I don’t want to be pinned down to a script that might be not quite right (in terms of language, illustration or content) in the particular circumstances of each service. I prefer to engage people where they are rather than simply deliver something I wrote days ago in a study.
So, I will post something once they are done.
However, my quick thought today is simply that Christmas feels like the end of a journey when, in fact, it is simply the start of another. Mary and Joseph leave home, have a baby, then set out into a threatening unknown (where they eventually become asylum seekers in a place – Egypt – that represents to their people only threat and oppression). Shepherds leave their work, have a surprising encounter in the town, then (presumably) go back to work? Magi set out on the basis of their astrology, find their goal in a surprising place, then find themselves regarded as ‘problems’ as they head away.
All these find that the end of their journey drives them off in a new direction – and not one that is necessarily comfortable.
We are almost there… but will discover that the journey doesn’t end with some sort of ‘fulfilment’ that closes everything down. Drawn by curiosity and a vision for the future (rather than being simply driven by a memory of the past), they go off in new directions, changed by their experience and challenged by being at the centre of God’s activity in and for the wider world.
So, I am for curiosity, adventure and walking into the unknown. It is what we do anyway – as none of us knows what tomorrow might bring. And it compels us once again to opt into all the world can throw at us and not exempt ourselves from it.
Christmas speaks not of escapism, but of willing engagement. Whatever the eventual cost. Or, to look at it through the eyes of a poet, as Bruce Cockburn put it:
Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.