25 December 2017
Revd Jonathan Cain
Hebrews 1: 1-4, Luke 2: 1-14
On Saturday Rebecca, the boys and I were driving home to Ben Rhydding from my mum’s house in Orpington in Kent. We set off early to avoid the inevitable Christmas queues for Bluewater and Lakeside, the two shopping centres either side of the Dartford Crossing, and we made good time. Peterborough services is our usual stopping point on this journey, but the boys were asleep, and so we pushed on to the services at Grantham. We called in at Greggs, and managed to resist their much adored sausage rolls, preferring coffee and pastries – so much better value than Costa! We then headed to the loo, where Arthur, my eldest, and I were both struck by one of the advertisements positioned above the urinals. Now I appreciate that this may not be a particularly tasteful, or promising start to a Christmas Day sermon, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
The picture on the advert was of Christmas presents, wrapped up and labelled for family members – Dad, grandad, etc., and the strap line read something like “this Christmas what’s under the tree is less important than who’s gathered around it.” So far so good maybe, except that the advertisement was for a DNA testing service. Now there may be a very positive contribution that DNA testing can make in identifying curable disease and helping families to spend many Christmases together. But there was a clear, unsubtle inference in the way the advert was presented that the service on offer was about establishing or confirming paternity.
Now I’m not easily offended, but this particular advert arrested me for two reasons:
Firstly, the adverts in motorway services, positioned above the urinals in gents toilets, are targeted at those who drive for a living, and who may spend time away from home. Using such advertising, at Christmas or at any other time, to sow seeds of, and then to prey on distrust that might exist between partners seemed in particular poor taste.
Secondly, the idea that Christmas is about blood-related families is just so wrong.
The Christmas story subverts any idealised understanding of the family. While many Christmas cards present mother, father and child, a new family unit, we remember that Joseph was not the baby’s father, and that Mary gave birth a long way from home without the support of her own family. Their situation was far from ideal, and that is before animals, shepherds, scholars from foreign parts, and angels are introduced into the picture.
When the angel visits Mary to reveal God’s plan her response, the song of praise that we call the Magnificat, makes clear her understanding that something monumental, something world-changing is happening. The proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up; God’s promise to Abraham … to bless the whole human race through his family … will be fulfilled. Jesus later reminds Mary of this divine plan when, during his ministry of healing and teaching, she and his brothers try to reach him through the crowd. When he is told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you,” Jesus says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Of course our human families are important – during the last few weeks I have been aware of this acutely – and Christmas can be a very good time to spend with parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. Often, Christmas is one of the few times in the year when families do gather together. But gatherings of those with close family ties are not the point of the Christmas story. Rather in the Christmas story, God calls all people to be fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, of the baby Jesus, and in so doing to remake the whole human race into one family. As the theologian Jane Williams wrote recently:
“Christmas challenges us to accept and then to live out the radical love of God, who made all things, loves and things, and has room at the table for all who will come. The Christmas crib scene is a peephole into a new world. As we kneel beside the shepherds and all the other strange and wonderful creatures whom God invites, our hearts and our imaginations begin to be enlarged. We begin to imagine that we might be at home with God, and with each other, around this simple cradle, in company with this family group.”
I started by describing the recent Cain family trip to Greggs, a company that created a bit of a stir a few weeks ago when it released its own Christmas advertising campaign. For those of you who didn’t see the advert, it showed the wise men knelt in adoration at the crib, which contained not a baby, but a Greggs sausage roll. I suspect not many of us here will be getting our Christmas meal from Greggs this year, but in some families such a meal would be a Christmas treat. In the midst of what was largely silly ‘outrage’ at the use of the crib scene in this way, Ian Fosten, a good friend of mine wrote the following poem:
A sausage roll in a manger
rests on the crib bed
where the little Lord Jesus
might have rested his head.
Some people were outraged,
“It’s blasphemous!” they said,
with a shrug of his shoulders
the Lord Jesus declared:
“But it’s food, cheap and tasty,
why would you find fault?
And it’s much more in keeping
than halos and gilt.
To the ordinary I came, then,
to the ordinary I come, still,
so what better symbol
than a warm sausage roll?”
‘Happy Greggsmas!’ we say then
as we wait in the queue
with the hungry and the scruffy
for the taste of good food.
Yes, with pastry and filling
we will savour your birth
and meet you in the ordinary
things of this earth.
I’m sure that the power of advertising is not lost on any of us. What we may sometimes forget is that we are all walking adverts for the Christmas story; for the difference that Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, makes in the world and in our lives. As we celebrate and savour the glorious truth of the Christmas story with our families and with our friends, may we experience Christmas joy and God’s peace, and dare to live out God’s radical love for the whole human family.