“And the time came for her to bear her firstborn child……”
December 24, 2011
The night is cold and dark, but she doesn’t notice. She isn’t aware of anything but the waves of pain that well up from inside her. There is a lull, and then they rise up again, and she feels as though she’s a swimmer, trying to stay afloat on an ocean of pain. She hears her breathing: it sounds coarse, unfamiliar. The contractions redouble and she uses their energy to release this child that is struggling to be free .A scream pierces the darkness and something is torn from her. Numb with shock she picks up the damp and bloodied bundle of life and holds him to her breast. Her baby, her son, fruit of her womb. Somehow, she can’t remember how, the cord is cut, the baby washed and wrapped. She wants to sleep but has to stay awake out of pure amazement at this new life, her joy, her first-born child.
Anyone who has been present at a birth will know what an extraordinary thing it is to witness the beginning of life. It’s an experience of wonder. It evokes in us a sense of marvelling at the miracle of life. Something that we normally take for granted – the sheer fact of being alive, of being a creature with the ability to move, grow, love, imagine, dream – it suddenly strikes us with the force of a new discovery. Childbirth reminds us how the ordinary fact of our existence is actually quite extraordinary, quite miraculous.
And we are here tonight to celebrate a birth. I remember asking my midwife why most babies were born at night. She thought about and said it was probably because most babies were conceived at night! May she’s right. Great events, like the birth of a child have a way of taking us out of our usual routines of sleeping and waking. Being party to a birth means finding ourselves wide awake and making cups of tea when the rest of the world is sleeping. And so it is with the great Christian festivals: of Christmas and Easter: we mark them by allowing some disruption to our usual routines, by coming to church at strange times of day and night. The ordinary flow of time is interrupted and we enter a different kind of time, heavenly time, time outside time.
Childbirth changes us. It makes us stop and wonder; it interrupts our comfortable low of routine. If that is true for an “ordinary” birth, how much more is it true of that we celebrate together tonight, on Christmas night: the birth of Jesus, who is the Christ. Here is a child, born into the poverty and obscurity of a Jewish peasant family two millennia ago. We are tonight to celebrate with Christians all around the world, to rejoice in the central mystery of our faith: that this same child is the very embodiment of the living God. In Jesus, God’s life-giving word is made flesh and dwells among us, here in our midst.
How can we know that? How can we even begin to get our minds around it? How can it be that the man Jesus was, as Christians proclaim, fully human as we are, and yet fully divine? If Jesus was fully human then he felt pain, desire, disappointment, joy, just as we do. If Jesus was fully human then, like us, he was born into a particular social context, and shaped and formed by the culture he grew up in. Yes: the human Jesus was all of these things. And yet divine? How so? I’m very much helped here by the writer John Robinson talks about the transparency of Jesus. When we see the human Jesus, we see God, because the nature of Jesus is wholly transparent. There’s nothing getting in the way. Jesus shows us God with perfect clarity. There’s nothing we need to know about God that Jesus doesn’t show us. It’s not just that Jesus is an especially good man. It’s not just that he’s a particularly wise teacher. It’s that at the core of his being Jesus embodies the love and creativity of the divine. So the God whom Christians worship is known most fully as a fragile human being, whose life is framed, as ours is, by the experiences of dying and being born.
When I come back to the story of Jesus birth in Luke, what strikes me vividly is the stressed and chaotic circumstances in which the birth takes place: the unsatisfactory birthing room, the improvised cradle. Childbirth would have been risky in such circumstances, as it continues to be in many parts of the developing world, where infant and maternal mortality are commonplace. Here in the wealthy West we are amply protected against the risk of childbirth: we attend ante natal-appointments and birthing classes, we paint the nursery walls and put up colourful printed curtains. We do all we can to ensure a good start in life for our child. Yet however much we cherish and pray for our children, we can’t fully protect them from the skinned knees and common colds of life. Such is the bitter-sweet nature of parenthood. To bring a child into the world is an act of love fraught with risk.
Our daughter Grace’s birth in 1994 coincided with the outbreak of the massacres in Rwanda. I vividly remember lying in a room in Jessop’s Hospital reading newspaper reports and weeping: how could we have brought a child into a world capable of such cruelty and terror? How could we have taken such a risk?
Yet it is in the nature of love to take risks. That is true of human love, and it is certainly true of the love of God. The love of God is a risk-taking love. Our God takes the risk of passionate engagement with his creation; of becoming flesh, of entering into our human lot in all its frailty in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see a life, a human body and mind like ours utterly filled, utterly graced by God. This is the breathtaking mystery we call incarnation. Emmanuel, God with us, God among us, charging human life with the glory of the Divine.
So how does that change things? It changes things because it means there is no area of human life too messy, too earthy for God to enter into, to transform and redeem.
It’s so easy for us to make religion into a rarified activity, divorced from the actuality of real life. The message of the incarnation is otherwise. The Word is made flesh right into the heart of human existence with all its loose ends and unanswered questions: into our struggles over wealth and poverty, over sexuality and gender, politics and power. This beautiful, messy world of ours is the arena for God’s holiness and love. The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all, even here, even to me, even to you.