Monday 14th December 2020 @ 2:48 pm
As part of the REWIND series of the Dublin City Interfaith forum, I was delighted to take part in the Christmas reflection at the grounds of the Lord Mayors Mansion House today. It was special to take part in a Christian reflection that was part of a wider inger–faiths movement, and had Methodist, Church of Ireland, Catholic, Romanian Orthodox and Indian Orthodox christians all taking part. Below is my contribution.
Beginnings and Endings are important – they go together.
The beginnings of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament are all different. The beautiful stable scene which we have here at the front of the magnificent Dublin Mansion House remains an invention of the Christmas card … the scene as it evolves in our texts is not a snow topped stable full of family with a newborn, shepherds and wise men gazing wizard–like with a star hanging above them – never mind the smiling clean animals – that scene is not in any of the four gospels.
My favourite addition BTW, is the snow.
In the Middle East.
For years I have quietly sniggered or been exasperated by Christmas depictions of snow in Bethlehem – but then I began to run human engagement programs between Palestinians, Israeli’s, British and Irish young people, and in conjunction with said program was on a skype call (remember when Skype was a thing?) to a friend in Bethlehem to talk arrangements. He told me it’s very cold here, it’s snowing. I told him, ‘it’s Bethlehem, it doesn’t snow there!’ He said, ‘let me move my computer to the window so you can see’ – Oh my –
it was beautiful … and snowing!
So, OK, I might give the snow on the Christmas card a begrudging gentle pass.
The Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus are all wonderfully different in their beginnings …
John – the philosopher. He has no cradle scene. He has lofty grandeur of the WORD (the Christ) being present to the WORLD from the very beginning.
His is a flowing chronicle of Divine presence which has always been near–by but now through proclamation and deliberate descent has come to dwell amongst his people. John is writing for a new audience – a Greek–speaking and Greek thinking audience, and so he writes accordingly with poetry and prose to begin his account.
Mark also has no stable scene. His opening, his beginning, is straight–in there with an almost political declaration of here is the ‘Good News’ – deliberately using language familiar with the government of the day to make his point.
The Greek word we translate Good news, ‘Euangelion’ would have been a familiar phrase as a proclamation from the Empire that the ‘emperor is returning to Rome with victory under his belt’
– another tribe, another country has been defeated and Rome is supreme.
Here is the Good News, the Empire PR machine proclaimed,
your Emperor has brought us victory again.
Mark seems to be straight to the point – you think that’s good news? That’s not Good news. You want Good news …I’ll tell you what it is.
Matthew has another different beginning to the story of Jesus. Matthew writing as a Jew for a primarily Jewish audience firmly places the narrative his writing will go on to outline in a Jewish setting. Beginning with a long chronology of the birth of Christ he places Christ firmly in his Jewish ancestry.
You will be glad to know that a chapter later we at least do have a stable scene with wise men! Alas there are no shepherds, and it’s not a stable, it’s just a “place” … but there is a baby Jesus!
Matthew has wise men bring gifts fit for a king
– yes, the Kings come to visit a new king.
And Luke – the fourth of four different beginnings to the story Christians celebrate this time of the year. After a lengthy prologue setting Jesus firmly into his Jewish narrative, this time with a story of an old man in the Temple having a vision rather than a lengthy family tree, Luke has Jesus born and laid in a manger for there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn.
Yes, not so much a stable, more a cave …
the Christmas card writers take those words that Jesus was ‘laid in a manger’ and go all out with them!
But here, we do have shepherds!
Disturbed from their manual nightshift work on the local hillsides by angels declaring Good News, and traveling to find the holy child.
I love the variation of the Gospels – I love the contrasting hopes and dreams contained in their beginnings.
The lofty all–embracing philosophy of John,
the political edge, almost dangerous subversion of Mark,
the deliberate placing of Jesus into context by Matthew
… and especially I love Luke.
I love Luke because his beginning of this history defining narrative has the story first proclaimed,
to the manual night shift workers.
The shepherds – the often mistrusted and set–aside shepherds who did the jobs that no–one else wanted. The ones who worked nightshift so that the economy and the religious social practices could continue.
If they did not look after the sheep, how would the people eat, how would they sacrifice at the Temple or in their homes? They were the often ignored even maligned lower working classes of their day, and they are the first to hear of the message Luke is bringing through his writing of the story of Jesus.
Luke wants us to know,
this beginning is for everyone.
And to prove it, he writes that the first receivers of the joy of Christ’s birth are the ones some folks would treat as no–ones.
With every beginning is an ending.
So what is ending?
In all four Gospels, the old order is ending.
The beginning of the story of Jesus, ends a story where God is somehow absent and above. For here is God, present in flesh.
It ends a story where God is victorious through violence and victory, for here is God, in an animal feeding trough.
It ends a story that God is distant and to be feared – for here is God, wrapped up in human skin, held in human arms.
It ends a story where God wields mighty power over – because here is God vulnerable, gurgling, cooing, struggling for breath and sight and touch.
This is love come down. Emmanuel, God with us.
The world as we once knew it,
say maybe in 2019 or such,
It’s gone, and it will not come back.
Old certainties, habits, practices and ways of functioning – ‘how the world works’ – that world has ended. And we are in a new place.
The certainties of the world we knew a year ago will not return, and we now have new practices and new habits to acquire.
Some of us have experienced deep deep loss this year in tragic ways.
Some of us have been denied the connections which keep us human.
So so many have sacrificed, and so so many have gone beyond their duty just to keep us afloat.
And it hasn’t just been ‘us’ – it’s been ‘them’ – this is a truly global narrative, that has stretched to encompass princes, presidents and prime ministers, as it has encompassed the destitute, diminished and downtrodden.
And now, fittingly through the lights of Hanukkah as we gaze at the coming light of Christmas, we see light at the end of the tunnel brought to us by science and innovation and massive endeavor. And yet we know, when we leave the tunnel, everything will be different because of what we have traveled through.
The world as known has ended – but – endings and beginnings go together
… where something ends, something new begins, emerges, forms, grows.
Maybe … just maybe … this year, the new beginning seen in the Christ–child of Bethlehem can inspire us all toward new beginnings of all kinds.
We have a new world emerging … how do we want it to be?
In the Christian tradition, we are invited to witness the light and life of newness in the Christ–child, and carry that life and light into the world – bringing joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self–control … bringing love.
Let love be our new beginning.
For God Is With Us.
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