By Damian Feeney
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1.12)
Once more, thank you for allowing me to share this special morning, and to celebrate with you. If our faith is about anything this morning, it is about surprise. Of course, we cannot speak of God without error, still less contain or imprison God. It is true that there are levels on which our sense of the surprising has been dimmed by two millennia of observance: we cannot claim to identify with the sheer wonder, terror and urgency of the shepherds as they witness angels, and are privileged to hear the message of their salvation and ours. But a moment’s pause reveals to us that this is indeed surprising, and shocking. The very essence and principle upon which the covenant relationship with God, and the culture which has surrounded it, is one of utter transcendence; and yet here, we encounter not a casting aside of that transcendence (which would be surprising enough) but rather a wholly new and complementary strand of God’s revealing. From this point on we are forced to consider that God cannot be imprisoned by transcendence, but tears the heavens open, and enters the very creation itself, and that as a fully human being. Here we consider a God who creates anew, not merely in flesh and blood, but in layer after layer of revelation, such that our perceiving and reflecting must grow and grow, the more to enter this eternal mystery.
The history of salvation may be portrayed as a story of God’s attempts to get closer and closer to his people. God tries creation – and is still trying. God tries Law-giving and society – and is still trying. God tries Prophecy – and is still trying. But still he cannot get close enough. The daring, risky solution is for God to become as we are. In this process he abandons the eternal for the temporal, the powerful for the vulnerable, the divine for the human. The risk is profound – but in this way human experience is embraced by the Godhead. And the risk is total. It depends on the will of a young teenage girl to act against every instinct. It depends on the very nature of humans. What is to say that, in an age when presumably infant mortality rates were high, that Jesus could not have died in the womb, or at birth, or as a baby? This, it seems, is a redefinition of what it means to be prudent according to divine wisdom.
This morning, we celebrate the fact that God was not content to stop here, either, as by the same overshadowing of the Holy Spirit which was granted to Mary, gifts of bread and wine are transformed into his Body and Blood, for our strength and our joy.
The world around us seems very tired at the moment. The narrative of the Christ child takes its place – often grudgingly – amongst the other images and narratives of what Christmas has come to mean for so many. The message loses its impact, reduced to the infantilization of the story in nativity plays, or to soundbites for marketing purposes. In such guises the message is weary, and it’s little wonder that some Christian communities are seeking to become more and more provocative with the story in order to provoke dialogue and debate in the name of apologetic engagement. But to those who are determined to allow the story to speak, in simple terms, to the heart – those for whom the encounter is a place of wonder, and surprise – those who are prepared to give ‘heart room’ to the Christ child, the story is eternally and wonderfully new – a place of genuine surprise, and a meeting place for us with God, in this most human of divine moments. Perhaps our task this morning, as we gaze on our Lord and God in this Eucharist with wonder and surprise, is to hold before God those for whom those elements are absent, and for whom a joyless Christmas has become one further chore in the midst of so many others. But we rejoice without limit, too, for on this day we receive him and we believe in his name; and to such are granted the only power worth having – the power to become children of God. May this be our rich blessing, and the cause of our deepest joy.
The Rev. Damian Feeney, SSC is parish priest of Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, West Midlands, UK. He preached this sermon to the Sisters of the Love of God in their Chapel at Fairacres, Oxford.