31 December 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The First Sunday of Christmas
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3; Luke 2. 15-21
I used to smoke quite heavily. Illicitly purchased cigarettes, bought singly as a fifteen year old from a newsagent who chose to turn the proverbial blind eye, led to an addiction which lasted some ten years. After a few years I really wanted to give up, and every New Year’s Day seemed to provide the ideal opportunity: no more of these, I would think, as I stubbed out my last cigarette before the annual ritual of Auld Lang Syne. But somehow it never quite worked out in the way I had hoped: my addiction always proved stronger than my will power. Yet I can still remember the enthusiasm with which I embraced the idea of a New Year’s resolution to give up smoking. It seemed right, somehow, that such a momentous decision, at least as it appeared to be at the time, should be kept for such a significant date in the calendar.
We are not much more than twelve hours from the start of another New Year, an annual moment inescapably associated with new beginnings of one sort or another. Many of us, no doubt, will be asked during the coming days about our New Year’s resolution; and if we don’t have one, the question may prompt us guiltily into asking ourselves whether we really ought to. But of course January the first is not the only ‘new year’ in any twelve month period. The Church Year, now beginning its fifth week; the academic year, a third of the way through; the tax year, three quarters of the way through – each one of these new beginnings may have more meaning for some than others but each one of them has some significance, even if it is only a change in tax coding.
In the end giving up smoking had nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions. I finally gave up on my wedding day. It seemed appropriate. Marriages are hugely significant new beginnings in all sorts of ways, as we hear in our first reading from the prophecy of Isaiah:
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels….
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
It is five hundred years before the birth of Christ. The people of Israel have returned from exile in Babylon. It is a time of great optimism and hope for a new beginning, born of trust that God’s promises to the people of Israel will be revealed to all people:
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
This divine vindication and glory is what we celebrate during Christmas-tide. The birth in Bethlehem that causes the shepherds to glorify and praise God does indeed mark a new beginning, a fresh start. After all, what can be newer than a new born child such as the one Luke describes ‘lying in the manger’? But we need to place alongside this understanding of Christmas another perspective. In God’s unfolding wisdom and providence, the incarnation marks the point at which our time and God’s eternity intersect. Seen from this perspective, the birth of Christ is both a new beginning and the revealing of what has been eternally true: that Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word, exists before all time; and that, as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells us, (God) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. This understanding of the incarnation allows us to move beyond Bethlehem, and into a new year, with all the hope and optimism of those who returned from exile in Babylon two and a half thousand years ago. Jesus makes God known to us, and we can begin our relationship anew with God through him knowing that we have been chosen for this, that this is our inheritance and our destiny.
Cast out our sin and enter in: be born in us today. Singing those familiar lines of the Christmas hymn, as we do every year, is a little like making a New Year’s Resolution. We may fail to live up to the rigours of Christian discipleship throughout the year, just as we may frequently break a New Year’s resolution through weakness or thoughtlessness. But eternal promises and blessings of God, which we celebrate this Christmas, give us courage and confidence to express anew the hope and the aspiration that Christ will indeed be born in us and that we shall be given the grace and strength to bear witness to him in our lives – through what we say and what we are. Listen, finally, to some words of Oscar Romero, an archbishop murdered because of what he said and what he was. These words express eloquently what it might mean for Christ to be born in us. As we listen, we continue to thank God, on the threshold of this new year, for the gift of his Son, and we pray that we may be both worthy of God’s blessings and worthy inheritors of his eternal promises.
Christ became a man of his people and of his time: He lived as a Jew, he worked as a labourer of Nazareth, and since then he continues to become incarnate in everyone. If many have distanced themselves from the church, it is precisely because the church has somewhat estranged itself from humanity. But a church that can feel as its own all that is human and wants to incarnate the pain, the hope, the affliction of all who suffer and feel joy; such a church will be Christ loved and awaited, Christ present. And that depends on us.