Just before Christmas I sat opposite a young couple on a train who had a ten week old baby. Dad was looking exhausted and slept most of the journey. It had been Mum`s first day back at work and he had been looking after the baby. So I talked to Mum. It was easy to start a conversation because of her beautiful baby daughter who after a good feed was also sleeping. I was told that baby had been born in a tent in the garden and Mum said I expect you can get a Christmas talk out of that. Both Mum and Dad clearly just delighted in their beautiful baby but my conversation meant that when our journey ended I also understood why mum and baby got off the train but dad had to stay on. Life can be hard and rarely straightforward and the economic climate in particular meant for this couple difficult times of separation.
It can be too easy for us to idealise the Christmas story of the birth of the baby Jesus and put its meaning outside of real life and real experience. But that can never have been the intention of the gospel writers. Luke gives us the shepherds, the outsiders, those who were mistrusted, the people on the edge as being the first visitors to the manger. Matthew gives us the visit of the Magi, the wise men, the sages from the East and a story of a fearful king Herod, of warning dreams, a terrible act of violence by the king and a great escape for the young couple and their baby. At New Year we watched a play with pieces of music, mainly from the Messiah, called Coram Boy and now as I think about it, I can recognise the elements of Matthew`s nativity that run through this dark but redemptive show about fear and violence, and of a baby who escapes death through the human courage of others.
500 years ago the artist Peter Brueghal painted many scenes of rural life and was brutally realistic about debunking ideas that rural life should be thought of as an idyll. He also weaved into many of his paintings the major events of Jesus` life, interpretations of parables and religious festivals. These take place against the backdrop of Flemish life in the 16th century and often you have to look hard in the painting to find what is going on. In “The Carrying of the Cross” (left) for example the Cross is barely visible and in “The Census at Bethlehem” snow and ice so much fill the landscape that we can miss the man leading a donkey which carries the young woman.
Brueghal would probably now be called a humanist. He interpreted the gospel narratives more in terms of human beings and their experiences in the world, letting the gospel narratives really taking hold of people`s hopes and struggles in the world in which they lived with its joys and disappointments. His perspective is important especially if Christmas becomes all too neat and tidy with too much being invested in it about looking right, doing things right and relying on old traditions to magically put things right. Approaching Christmas like that can often lead to frustration and disappointment . There is something to be said for always facing Christmas afresh like the young couple would be doing with with their baby.
And so in our families and our communities we should be creative, innovative and thoughtful in the plans we make each and every Christmas and that includes in the church in the planning our worship. Contemporary nativities set in a garage and also having non- biblicaI poems and readings at carol services can work well. As for the bible readings we do have, I wonder how meaningful now is the selection of readings that were put together after World War One in the longer form of Nine Lessons and Carols. These readings ignore the Old Testament Wisdom tradition which is the background for much of our understanding of the story of the wise men, make no mention of the positive role of women in the Old Testament only referring to Eve, and for Abraham, the reading is the complex passage about the offering of Isaac.
At the back of Church this morning is a painting by one of Brueghal`s sons, Jan the younger. His painting is more traditionally devotional than the work of his father but I find equally thought provoking. Great crowds of people are both inside and outside a small house and at the front Mary presents the baby Jesus to them. She looks at the baby in a way like that the Mum did on the train. (And Joseph looks a bit exhausted by it all). This Mary knows that her child is special and that it is he who is the focus of the crowd. In particular we find three wise men at the child`s feet who are presenting their gifts. This child will bring change for Mary and Joseph who will need to be very courageous, change for the Wise Men who will need to think as they have never thought before and also bring change for all people. In the painting these are not only the ones queuing to see the child but also the ones talking and carrying on with life in the background, where we also find that there are soldiers at every corner.
This is the Jesus that makes most sense for me at Christmas and Epiphany. The one born to a carpenter and a young women in an occupied land where people were frightened about the future and where for many life was always hard and getting harder. A couple who would be on the move and who did not have the luxury of knowing where their next home would be. A Jesus who first is recognised by the lost of society and the excluded because they not only have the time, but also the imagination and the faith to perceive who he is and the change that he brings. A Jesus who is also found by those who are prepared to seek and search and who does not conform to their own perceived expectations. A Jesus who is a threat to a leader whose authority is based on fear and the disunity of others.
The seekers and searchers, the Wise Men, bring their gifts which reaffirm faith in the god that Abraham had acknowledged as the God of all people and all creation. They find a king like no other king whose life will be lived out entirely for others and who will die because his message is too radical and life changing to be safe.
In 2012 can we take this message to heart as we seek to make sense of it for our world, a world of many faiths, 2 of which we share a common background , also a world where in the west there is much secularism often connected to materialism and consumerism that holds a grip on all aspects of life . And a world where Christianity has many faces and many idiosyncracies and yet means nothing if we do not live out and show the radical love of the Galilean peasant Jesus. A world where too many people suffer illnesses that could be cured and where millions of lives are shortened because of the greed of others. Where then can we say that we are in this landscape and where might we journey to, in this new year?