December 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION First Sunday of Christmas
Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Theme: We might need to remind ourselves that it is still Christmas – at least, liturgically! If you do, that might be a good theme to consider. More realistically, we might need to face the fact that, for many of us, Christmas feels distinctly "over". If Easter Day is followed by "Low Sunday", perhaps Christmas Day should be followed by "Flat Sunday"? A similar idea, but one a little more relevant to this week's gospel passage, might be "Clean Up Sunday". But I'm going for "A Real Birth into a Real World", if only as a mouth-wash and diuretic to rinse out the last bits of sentimentality from my system.
Introduction. When the Eternal invades the Temporal it messes with all ideas of chronology; and our Lectionary at this time of the year certainly illustrates that. Today's "events" are said to follow immediately after the departure of the Magi, whose arrival we feature next week. So there's a "Boxing Day Sales" feel about our readings for this week: we seem to have an assortment of things to be cleared before we get back to real business in the New Year. We begin again with Isaiah, even though his "dismissal" of angelic involvement seems strangely at odds with the gospel passage. Perhaps he gets the nod today because of his emphasis on God's saving presence with his people – the Emmanuel theme. Our epistle reading is more obviously associated with Jesus' suffering and death than with his birth; but that in itself is useful. There would be no Christmas celebrations had it not been for Easter. And the author reminds us that it is precisely because Jesus is one of us in all respects, including in birth, that he is able to save us. Meanwhile, Matthew is back at his desk, poring over the Scriptures, playing his own version of biblical chess, seeking to counter each and every move to raise doubt about Jesus' messianic credentials.
Background. This year I was invited to preach at the Christmas Eve service at St Barnabas, Warrington and, as a preliminary to that, to read the gospel chosen for that service: John 1:1-14. The hour being late, and the congregation already exhausted by almost an hour of joyful carol-singing, I deemed it safe to do something a little different. To announce the gospel reading I said: "The Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John". Apart from hearing the presiding priest's eyebrows move sharply upwards, I was not aware of any other signs of shock or dismay; and so I continued on for a few minutes before offering an explanation for this liturgical innovation.
I said I had two reasons for doing this. First, to remind us that there is nothing about Jesus' birth (much less his conception) that would have been known or remembered today if it had not been for his death and resurrection. And secondly to remind us that St John is reflecting on the same experience recorded in their somewhat different ways by St Matthew and St Luke in their so-called birth narratives. In other words, I was trying to recover from all the tinsel and wrapping that seems to have invaded even the church the essential truth of Christmas, so brilliantly encapsulated by St John in his Prologue. I summed up in this way:
What makes this birth unique is not the biological details – not the poverty into which this child was born – but the fact that in some mysterious way that we cannot and should not attempt to know or explain, the Spirit of God entered into our human flesh, and through that flesh into the whole of creation. The creative energy of God, the life-force of God – whatever terms we choose to use – took flesh in that wee baby and everything was transformed. Matter and Spirit became one.
Since then I have had a few hours of cake and recreation (well, I would have had some recreation if the rain had stopped) and I now wish I hadn't said "everything was transformed" – I should have said "everything is being transformed", or something along those lines. But I would stand by the basic message. And confirmation came for me when I tuned into the service on National Radio on Christmas morning – from St Mark's in Remuera – and heard a reading from John 3:1-8 – the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus about the need to be born "from above". Like Mary, we must assent to the Spirit overshadowing us if we want the Christ to be born in us. In short, the correct name for the miracle of Christmas is "the Incarnation", not "the Virgin Birth".
Having said all that, we need the corrective of today's gospel passage to remind us that the Incarnation came through a real birth into a real world, whatever our carols, our Christmas cards, St Francis, Hollywood and all the other mythmakers of the world would have us believe. As we say, it wasn't pretty. Mary suffered the normal pains of labour, and ran the usual risks involved in childbirth. The baby himself was as fragile, as vulnerable, and as dependent as any other newborn. And now St Matthew reminds us that surviving childbirth was only the first challenge. He was born into poverty, and into a world of political intrigue, human chicanery, and even genocide. This was a real birth into the real world.
And there might be the first thing we need to reflect on today. According to the TV News around 150 babies will have been born on Christmas Day in New Zealand. Of course, the reporter then had to dumb down to the old chestnut about how sad it must be to have your birthday on Christmas Day and only get one lot of presents, etc. Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone in the newsroom might have remembered the figures released recently about children live in poverty in this country, and how many will suffer abuse during their early years. Of the 150 or so babies born in this country on Christmas Day, how many of them are facing those sorts of challenges? That, it seems to me, might be a useful way into our reflections on this week's gospel stories from St Matthew, however "contrived" they might be.
Isaiah. Such depressing thoughts are a fitting backdrop to this week's first lesson. In the worst of times Isaiah (and the other prophets) often calls for renewed hope, based on God's "past record", and that's what's going on here. Our short reading is a sort of love and compassion sandwich: in verse 7 he recalls God's "mercy" and "the abundance of his steadfast love"; and in verse 9 he comments again on God's saving deeds "in his love and pity". It is in verse 9 that we get the key reference to the direct involvement of God in the lives of his people: "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them"; and this follows verse 8 in which the point is made that it was precisely "in all their distress" that God became their saviour. Quite what we are to make of the reference in that verse to God's people being "children who will not deal falsely", I am not sure!
Taking It Personally.
- A good time to review the past year. How do you feel as you come to the end of it? What were some of the highlights for you? What are you most thankful for? What particular struggles have you faced during the year? Has your faith grown stronger or weaker during the year? When you have finished your review, bring it before God in prayer.
- Now read slowly through this passage. How much of this passage can you directly relate to in your life over the last year? When have you been most aware of God's mercy and steadfast love? What great things has he done for you this year? Have you felt that God had lifted you up and carried you through your difficult times?
- When were you most aware of his presence with you?
- Time for prayers of thanksgiving!
Hebrews. The author of this letter also feels the need to "bring us down to earth". Presumably there were many in his social network who were big on angelology, because he is at some pains to insist that Jesus the Christ is above the angels, and not subject to them. Yet he insists that such an exalted spiritual status does not detract in any way from Christ's humanity. It is precisely as a human being that God has exalted him above the angels, and put all things under his authority. Only as a human being could he bring us salvation. And so he insists that Jesus shares with us flesh and blood. Jesus is, as we say, "fully human" [subtext: not an angel or other spiritual being dressed up to look like a human being].
Taking It Personally.
- Not an easy passage to love or ponder! Perhaps the best use of it may be to reflect on your own belief about the humanity of Jesus. Do you really accept that he is "one of us" – that through the Holy Spirit your humanity is redeemed, not replaced with a spiritual version? Are you becoming more like him with each year that passes? Are you growing in him – or, more correctly, letting him grow in you?
- Read through this passage slowly and prayerfully again. Hear/read what the Spirit is saying to you through this passage. What word or phrase particularly strikes you?
- Have another look at verse 15. To what extent have you been "held in slavery by the fear of death?" Are you still held captive in this way? Pray for deliverance, if you are.
Matthew. This week we have the account, unique to Matthew, of the Holy Family's period of asylum in Egypt. Again, it's worth noting that neither Joseph nor Mary speak in this passage; but even more striking this week is the completely passive role played by Mary. In fact, she is not even named, being referred to only as "the child's mother" in verses 14 and 20. It seems likely that, apart from the Scriptural arguments Matthew is addressing around the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, he may also be dealing with social objections here concerning the role of Joseph. If Joseph was not the father, how could he possibly have agreed to go ahead with the marriage and brought up Jesus as if he were his own child? No self-respecting man would do that. So here we have a carefully constructed story to show Joseph as the man of extreme faith carefully following a series of instructions sent to him from God. In the course of this narrative Joseph receives three dream messages, although the third one is not directly attributed to an angel of the Lord. The picture we get is of Joseph acting as the head of his household, but subject to the authority of God. The idea of Egypt as a place of refuge is important; and the echoes of the first Joseph and his dreams is no doubt deliberate. The report of the murderous activities of Herod also looks ahead to another Herod who was to decapitate John the Baptist and play a role in Jesus' trial and execution. Notice, incidentally, that whereas St Matthew purports to be "explaining" the phenomenon of Jesus in terms of the prophetic Scriptures, the reference (in verse 23) to "the Nazorean" or "the Nazarene" does not seem to be based on Scripture – although some commentators have made a half-hearted attempt to apply it to " the Nazorite" or "Nazirite" reference to Samson in Judges 13:5.
Taking It Personally.
- Take time to reflect on the whole idea of the birth of Christ as a parable of the birth of faith in a believer. Pray for a fresh birth of Christ in you. Assure God that you assent to his Spirit overshadowing you and entering into you again.
- Think about the early stages of pregnancy as you reflect on the growth of faith within you. When did you first feel its stirring? When did it first show?
- What has most threatened the growth of your faith – from what or whom has it been necessary to seek refuge?
- Pray for the children born in New Zealand on Christmas Day. What do you most seek for them at this time? Pray, too, for refugees and their children.
- What concerns do you take with you into 2014 from this gospel reading, bearing in mind we will have a General Election next year?