A Christmas message for Wanstead

The Reverend Elizabeth Horwell of Christ Church and St Mary’s, Wanstead, writes:

“Christmas is for children” How often have you heard that phrase? What does it mean?

“Father Christmas is for children” – I can understand that! For children Father Christmas is magical…. and as they grow older they pester and pester to know if he’s real or not. I remember it well with my own daughter Catherine. Eventually I started thinking “Maybe I should tell her? She’s obviously guessed anyway. ”

So I did…. And, guess what! She burst into tears. She didn’t want to know that He wasn’t real – what she really wanted was to know that the magic was true. And I think that in many of us there is the desire for the magic of Father Christmas to be real – otherwise the story of the Miracle on 34th Street wouldn’t be so popular. And let’s face it in that film we’re all rooting for the courts to find Father Christmas real! We long for Santa Claus to give the child the things she’s asked for – her mother to get married, the new house to live in as a proper family and a baby brother or sister. Father Christmas is magic – he takes us to a different and better world in this night of the year.

And yet – isn’t the real story of Christmas even more magical, even more amazing when you stop to think about it. Father Christmas makes magic work on only one night of the year; and only really for the world’s privileged children, those whose parents can afford to realise the story for their children. The magic comes in material things – toys, longed for maybe, but probably the result of fleeting desire rather than deep longing or need.
But God, the creator of our whole glorious creation, did something that first Christmas designed to meet the very deepest longings and needs within every human being: designed to work for all people across the world, poor as well as rich (maybe poor even more than the rich!), vulnerable as well as strong, socially unaccepted as well as the ‘in-crowd’.

For God longed so much to give the best of his love to his created beings, that at that first Christmas he did what no other God has ever done in the history of the world. He chose to come to earth and live among us – to “pitch his tent in this world” (as some translations of John’s gospel have it).
This kingly God, all-powerful (omnipotent), all-wise (omniscient), present everywhere (omni-present), came to us not as the God that he actually is but as a human like us – in the guise of a small, vulnerable and dependent baby.

This kingly God chose to come not to a rich palace with servants to do his bidding but to the cold and smelly uncomfortableness of an animal’s stable with only coarse straw underfoot.

This kingly God chose not to surround himself with the rich and powerful (though it’s true that eventually the wise men discovered his presence and came hundreds of miles to visit him – but that was much later). No, in the first few days God the baby’s only visitors – the people whom God told his good news and trusted to convey that news to the rest of the world – were some shepherds outside Bethlehem. And let me tell you that shepherds in those times were not well-regarded – we’re talking social misfits here, social outcasts. In those days you required two witnesses to prove something in a court of law – but two groups of people were not considered good enough to act as witnesses – women (still working on that one in the Anglican Church!) and shepherds! Shepherds were right at the bottom of the pecking order; and I think it shows God’s amazing sense of humour that when he arrives at last on this planet after thousands of years of planning – he reveals himself to…. shepherds!

God, in the guise of a small vulnerable baby comes to us among the straw. And what is straw exactly? It’s just the dry stalk of a cereal plant after the nutrients have been removed – it’s the waste product, the end-product, zero worth.

Jesus comes to birth in the straw of the stable and Jesus comes to us in the straw of our lives – he comes alongside us and shares with us at our most vulnerable and weakest moments. Of course he comes and shares our celebrations too. But in the gospel stories Jesus’ compassion is most deeply felt for those who are unable to help themselves, those whom others find it difficult to love, those who feel unloved and unlovable. Jesus comes and he doesn’t promise to wave a magic wand and make things better; he doesn’t promise that life will always be wonderful (he was human, he knows it isn’t!) What he promises is that he will be alongside us, come what may – even when we make mistakes and even when we get things badly wrong and are ashamed – and when we are right at our lowest point – then he doesn’t just walk alongside us but he carries us: our God lifting us up into his arms to bear the weight of our sadness and pain and loneliness and injustice.

And this God, I believe, has the power to transform us – not just for one night, but for all time – into people who, because we glimpse his love for us, suddenly get a glimpse of the world as God sees it and we long to help him to make others feel loved too. God transforms us so that our longings are not for the fripperies of material gifts with the short term happiness they bring – but for the joy that only comes from sharing, from giving some part of ourselves to helping others; the sense of contentment that being part of a loving and supportive community brings. God longs to transform you and me to be part of his team – and if you open yourself to his love for you even by a tiny amount, then he can bring his magic into your life not just on this night but for always. Even if we only love with one millionth of the love that God has for us, it will be enough, and ample, to transform our world and make it a place where God’s kingdom dwells.