A young peasant girl on the edge of womanhood is told by an angel that she will give birth - despite her protestations that she knows where babies come from and is pretty sure this is not likely - and that the child she is carrying will grow up to be the saviour of his people, good news not just for the Jewish people but for all who yearn for justice. Mary is justifiably sceptical and perhaps overwhelmed, and she hesitates, perhaps wondering how this is going to go down with the man she is engaged to marry - yet the story unfolds because her love for life and her hope for the future are stronger than her fear and scepticism. And so Jesus is born in circumstances which are frankly less than ideal - in a small town where every door is shut against them, in a farm shed which was the only shelter they could find, witnessed only by the startled animals and a group of curious shepherds who drop by a bit later having been given the good news by yet more angels shouting raucously at them from the sky.
It’s a 2,000 year old story, a tall tale if ever there was one, embroidered with fabulous pyrotechnics and melodramatic narrow escapes from the wicked king, Herod. It’s been told so often that it has become maybe over-familiar, but something about this story still commands our attention, even in our hard-headed, cynical age. You see the key character in this story is God, and the story tells us not only that God is interested in us, and that God loves us, but also that God is most truly known in the everyday small acts of love and courage and kindness that draw us together as a community. A woman and a man committed to one another despite the social disgrace of an unplanned pregnancy - the kindness of an innkeeper who lends a homeless couple a stable to have their baby - a group of farm-workers who gather around to witness the everyday miracle of the birth of a child. As Christians, we don’t have to be credulous, we do recognise the obvious mythological elements of the story of Jesus’ birth, we recognise also the immense social and cultural distance between ourselves and the world from which this ancient story comes to us and yet - well, here we are on Christmas morning, you and I, because in the middle of the busy-ness of our personal lives, and the chaos and bustle and cynicism and sadness of the world we live in, we understand that this unlikely story matters, and that on the level that informs us of who we are and what we can hope for and believe in it is true, and we need to hear it again and receive it gently and with wonder and allow it to live within us.
As a priest, and a theologian, and as a Christian who loves the Church even when I am exasperated with it, I believe the Christmas story gently informs us that we in the Church make this religion stuff too complicated. It’s no accident, I think, that the story of divine love made real in flesh and blood comes to us from a historical backwater, from a nuisance outpost in the imperial network of Rome, from an uneducated peasant underclass just simple enough, perhaps, to give credence to wild rumours that the universe itself is structured by love, and that oppression does not last forever and that - to paraphrase Martin Luther King - the moral arc of the universe, though it constantly disappears ahead of us in uncertainty and in time, does tend towards justice. We clever modern folk make religion too complicated, and we make our talk of God too complicated. I think that God, and the Bible, and the story of Jesus are a long conversation the Jewish people had been having amongst themselves for centuries. A small and not very powerful nation occupied by a succession of foreign powers, they wanted to know how they could be sure they would be alright. And being practical people, the only God they found they could believe in was one they couldn’t see or touch, but whose name, in Hebrew, meant "I am" - a reassuring quality for men and women whose existence was precarious. And they came to understand over many centuries that the character of such a God must be love itself. Which in other words means that as human beings we are most alive when we give ourselves in love and compassion. And the Christmas story means that the love that’s at the heart of reality is best known in the small and the everyday. In the birth of a baby - helpless and vulnerable and loud and messy - we touch God.
We’ve not had a good year. Maybe you, personally have had a good year - I hope so, and I hope that we all have much to celebrate and reflect on in this pause between one year and the next - but we - all of us, that is, have not had a good year. A year - in our lucky country - that started with apalling firestorms and has been dominated by pandemic. A year in which even the most complacent Australians learned something about the value of patience and resilience and kindness. A year in which we have witnessed new lockdowns and overwhelmed healthcare systems around the world as second and third waves of COVID-19 have swept through the wealthy nations of Europe and North America. Of course the poorest suffer especially, and largely out of the sight of TV cameras because, actually, we no longer have the appetite to hear about Yemen enduring the trifecta and famine and civil war and COVID. If you are a 12 year old child in Yemen today you have lived your whole life at risk of starvation as well as attacks by militias or from the air by Western-made drone aircraft. COVID has done us a favour, perhaps, if it has made us remember compassion for those enduring all the forms of lockdown our modern world imposes. And yet inequality even in our lucky country has got worse this year, not better. Major corporations have done well and paid their executives handsome bonuses out of Jobkeeper and other Government stimulus payments - while young people, casual workers and overseas students have slipped through the safety net and older women in particular at higher than ever risk of homelessness. Our sense of security and expectation of basic fairness has been shaken, and we have certainly been challenged to care more deeply for one another.
In Australia, we live in one of the most secular countries in the world. Mostly this is just the secularism of the over-comfortable, but in recent years there has also been a more serious critique that religious perspectives are just irrational wishful thinking. At the same time there is a growing interest in humanism - a secular spirituality whose prophets sometimes claim that religious faith is the enemy not only of clear thinking but also of compassion. Religious faith, according to this view, divides us into ghettos of the small-minded, judgemental and self-serving. Like all stereotypes, there is truth in this - to be honest, religion all too often is used as a way not of increasing our compassion and challenging our prejudices but of making us feel safe and affirming our sense of entitlement. I’d like to suggest, though, that Christmas - with its story of God becoming human - challenges this false sort of religion because Christmas reveals the humanism at the heart of the Christian faith.
Why? Because Christmas reminds us we don’t have a remote God who lives in some sort of far-off heaven or who can be known only by those who practise esoteric forms of prayer or meditation - but a God who can be best understood and is best revealed in the shape of a human infant - small, helpless and vulnerable. Take away the tinsel and the Christmas trees and what Christmas is telling us is that God is to be discovered not up there but down here. And that what God is most concerned about is down here as well. That other Christmas story, the one about the wisdom seekers, also tells us something about this. The wise ones - magi - were the ancient world’s scientists or cosmologists who looked into the heavens for divine clues and insights into the future but who - incomprehensibly - were led by the stars to a random shed in the back streets of an unimportant village in an unimportant country. And to a baby born to a homeless couple. Ever since then if you want to think of God - think of a crying baby or of a pregnant woman turned away from a domestic violence shelter. Think of God not as superhuman but as the most powerless of all humans - this is the ultimate humanist narrative because it tells us God’s true life is with us and for us. And it tells us that God’s number one priority is with the weakest and the least powerful.
Unfortunately Christians have not always been very good humanists - too often Christians have failed to stand up for human flourishing and for the alleviation of human suffering. Too often Christians have mistaken respectability and the status quo for God’s true agenda - which Jesus tells us about when he says, ‘I have come that you might have life, and have it to the fullest’. Or as the second century theologian Irenaeus puts it, ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. But Christmas challenges our self-centred view of the moral universe, and it challenges us to widen our perspective and to love people in the same way that God loves people - not theoretically but practically, getting God’s hands dirty up close and personal. Christmas reassures us that God is with us and for us - and challenges us to recognise and to live out the moral implications of this in our own lives.
Which is why Christmas is a message of hope.