The Vicar writes . . .
“God is with us!”
Is it all Good News??
One of the difficulties of settling into a new culture is the slowly dawning realization, that for all our common cultural inheritance and language, like the past “they do things differently”. Those of you whom we have come to live amongst, who have grown up in these most beautiful of islands, have been deeply embedded in a way of life and a way of understanding the world which is strange and new to my family and myself and it takes time to adjust.
One of the BIG differences of course is that no-one here thinks it at all odd to celebrate Christmas in mid-summer J The seemingly infinitely variable weather may well mean that wind makes moan, but it is unlikely to be frosty; the earth is not standing hard like iron – rather it is perfect for rapidly growing vegetables for the Christmas table! But, that is a good thing for it is all too easy for any of us to be lulled into cosy sentiment regarding Christmas, wherever we may live – and vicars, having to speak to Christmas year in year out, need their perspectives renewing more than most!
Christmas for many of us, is a time of fixed traditions – of that which has its Sacrosanct Place in the year to year cycle of events. It is something we may look forward to, because of that familiarity. We know what it will bring and so may well be a comfort to us. Just like those familiar words, plain for all to see on the sign by the church drive, “God is with us”.
To say that these words have been misused and abused down the years is only to state the obvious. One need only think of how from the latter part of the nineteenth century in Europe and Germany in particular, through to the fall of the Third Reich, these words were emblazoned on helmets and belt buckles and buttons of military uniform – to see this in its most blatant form. But as it is blasphemous so to take the name of the Lord and use it in vain in this way – to attach the name of the Lord to any of our projects and thus Baptise them - so also we must be very careful of reducing those words to the kind of cosy sentiment which years of our Christmas traditions might have done. Matthew uses these familiar words, “God is with us”, from the Prophet Isaiah - wherein the one who is called Immanuel is not only a sign of a Salvation beyond comprehension, but also a devastating Judgment on the powers that be. You may like to take a look at chapter seven and eight of the prophet Isaiah and read this for yourself. Salvation and Judgment go hand in hand – they are Present to us in Christ, God with us.
The very circumstances of Jesus’ birth, if we are to read the narrative as intended, sees the birth of Christ forcing even the mighty Roman empire to be re-organised, as Bethlehem becomes the epicentre for the action of God. And in response, ‘the powers that be’ are unleashed with demonic force.
‘Herod then with fear was filled – “a prince”, he said “in Jewry”.
All the little boys he killed at Beth’lem in his fury!’
Imagine for a moment being someone caught up in all of this – perhaps being forced to travel for a census, or fleeing from Herod’s wrath, or worse, and being told ‘this is because the words of the prophet “God is With Us”, are coming true in this time!’ The story thus takes on a very different hue – this is no sentimental image.
As Mary herself proclaims, the arrival of Immanuel pronounces unimaginable upheaval – “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away”
Last month I gave some space here to the Beatitudes, amongst them Blessed are those that mourn. As we look out at the world this Christmas it is hard not to mourn. Beset by economic meltdown and turmoil – with ecological mayhem creeping ever closer and military action never far from the surface, we cannot say that the world is in no need of a Saviour. And it is all too easy to fall either into despair, or to close our ears and eyes and turn to our familiar rituals as sources of light against the dark, or indeed once more to try and save ourselves. A sentimental understanding of “Immanuel” will do little to speak to our need to turn our mourning into dancing.
One of the chief purposes of Advent is to prepare our hearts and minds for the Only One who can Save us, precisely by reminding us that he is also the Judge. That at the cross Everything is judged and found wanting. The babe of Bethlehem, is the Christ of Calvary, is our Risen and ascended Lord. As my eyes are struggling to open to new realities this Christmas time, blinking in summer sun (I hope! J ), may this Advent prepare in us a home to welcome the one who comes to pronounce God’s Judgment. His NO! upon the world over which we mourn, and only through this to Pronounce his utterly unimaginable YES and so to Save it. For no lesser a Saviour is worth celebrating, in this season or in any other.
So may Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you this Advent, Christmas and Epiphany season, scatter the darkness form before your path, and make you ready to meet him when he comes in glory.