One of the interesting and helpful Christmas traditions that has grown amongst Protestant churches especially in North America is the ‘Blue Christmas‘ service - which is to say, Christmas for people who are feeling blue, Christmas for people who aren't feeling that great about Christmas. Because when you have some hard things happening in your life it can be hard to get with the bonhomie and the tinsel of Christmas - feeling alienated and alone it can seem that nobody gets you, and the general good cheer of Christmas can sometimes make that feel worse, not better. But in fact the good news of the Incarnation - which means that God does get what it means to be human and to face hard realities - does help - and Blue Christmas can also help by toning down the carols and bypassing Santa and focussing a little more on the contemplation.
The readings given for today, the first Sunday after Christmas, are helpful for anybody who has ever thought, even just for a moment - bah humbug! Because they offer us a couple of different ways of answering the question - so what? How does our annual celebration of Christmas help in a grown-up world of difficult choices and hard questions?
We begin, as the Old Testament so often does, with a big picture perspective. Weaving the history of God’s covenant relationship with Israel together with the story of creation itself which reflects the goodness and the loving purposes of God, the Old Testament from the Pentateuch to the Prophets returns over and over to the common theme that the faithfulness of God’s people is reflected in the fertility and productivity of the land. The divine intention of shalom connects the true purpose of human life with order and harmony in the created order.
This is an ecological view both of human life - seen as a web of life-giving inter-relationship and mutual obligation both to God and to one another - and of human life within the natural order based on a deep awareness that the land itself belongs to God and reflects the beauty of God. Writing in the post-exilic period, after the homecoming from Balylon when the reality of returning to a broken and desolate land had begun to sink in, Isaiah in the passage we read this morning is making this same connection with the metaphor of a marriage ceremony for the commitment between God and the people, which refreshes the whole of creation ‘as the earth brings forth its shoots’ - and is evidenced also in the restoration of shalom between God’s people and the surrounding nations. Although this is a time of crisis in the national and political life of the people, the prophet is telling them that living with confidence towards hope is possible, because the covenant relationship with God encompasses every aspect of their life as well as that of the non-human world in which their lives unfold. In the very next verse after our passage this morning the prophet pronounces a blessing, and a new name: "You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land [shall be called] Married"[1]. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but they commit themselves to the hope of new life and new possibilities in the same way as a newly married couple.
The same sense of human life unfolding within the context of a non-human creation that sings God’s praise is the theme of our psalm this morning - in which we hear the voices of the whole created order. Angels, the sun and moon and the natural systems of rain and wind make up the heavenly choir while the earthly choir comprises everything from sea monsters, wild and domestic animals, reptiles, insects and birds and even the plant kingdom - in harmony with the voices of human beings. We are reminded that all creation is loved and tended by God and that our own lives are lived within a web of relationship that encompasses everything that God has made. Of course passages of scripture like this give heart to ecotheologians - who look for evidence that the natural world also matters to God - but also I think can give heart to all who look for evidence that living in loving relationship with God means that we are also connected at a deep level with both the human and non-human world in which we live. As 21st century Christians living with a natural world that is damaged and in retreat, we are in need of healing and reconnection. In the Incarnation of the one who takes on not just our humanity but the atoms and living cells of all creation is the promise of wholeness at every level of our being.
The passage we read from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the earliest ever reference in the New Testament to the birth of Jesus. That is because Paul’s letters were written between 20 and 30 years after Jesus’ death, a whole generation before the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. Like the Isaiah passage, Paul is also writing to a community that needs a fresh infusion of hope. And here Paul sets out why he believes the birth of Jesus - ‘born of a woman’ - which is to say, a human being who entered into the world in the regular way - why and how this helps. And he does it in one powerful sentence: "born under the Law in order to redeem whose who were under the Law so that we might receive adoption as children".[2] While most scholars agree that those born "under the Law" are primarily the Jewish Christians in Paul’s community the promise of adoption brings together both Jewish and gentile Christians. More generally, we can understand the law here as all the non-negotiable circumstances of our lives - as creatures who are born and who will die, who love and fear and suffer, who are capable of both good and evil and who bear the consequences of our actions. Paul is here expressing what took the Church the first five centuries of its life to fully articulate - which is that it matters greatly that Jesus was fully human, like us, because sharing all the circumstances of our lives Jesus makes those circumstances holy by bringing them into the heart of God’s own life. We speak fairly easily of Jesus’ death - which redeems our own death - but sometimes pass over the full implications of Jesus’ humanity which like ours includes struggles with health and sickness and money worries, struggles with the gift of sexuality and desire, the struggle to be merciful and to show empathy. The struggle to be kind. The Jesus who can save us is the Jesus who not only dies, but who also lives.
And, finally, to the Gospel where, in what for many people seems a wrong note in the otherwise happy Christmas procession, Simeon the faithful and presumably extremely aged man has been looking forward both to the coming of the messiah and his own death. Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms and praises God for the birth of the one who will bring revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Israel - and celebrates his release from faithful waiting. Just as Jesus is held in the womb of the young woman, Mary, so too is he held in the arms of an old man who looks forward to his death. Here, the image of an old man at peace with his own death as he holds the eight-day old baby reminds us that endings imply new beginnings and that in death - even our own - there is a coming to new birth.
Simeon recognises in the new-born Jesus the fulfillment of the centuries-old promise of a messiah, the anointed of God who will bring into reality God’s priority for justice and peace. He sees in this small baby the incarnation of hope, and also the assurance that his own life has eternal meaning and value, and that he is held in the heart of God. In his beautiful hymn, the Nunc Dimitis that is recited every evening in the cycle of daily prayer, Simeon not only pronounces his own readiness to die, but he blesses and praises God for all that will be. Simeon is the saint for grown-ups who need to know the constancy and love of God throughout the journey of life.
And Simeon speaks hard but hope-hewn words to the child’s mother, foretelling that Jesus would be a Saviour opposed by many, that he would be a sword that would divide Israel - and that his own mother’s heart would also be pierced. Here, right after Jesus’ birth there is a shadow of the hatred that will lead to the cross. The cost of love - both divine and human - is the pain of rejection. The cost also of faithful discipleship can be high - disappointment and doubt can shadow our faith, friends and family may misunderstand or reject our commitment, God can seem to be absent when we most need the comfort of God’s presence. A sword may pierce our own heart, too. But as Simeon can speak the hard but truthful and loving words to Mary, confident as he approaches the end of his own life that it is fulfilled in the gift of Jesus -so can we. Because God with us revealed at Christmas is the meaning and the true purpose of our life.




[1] Isaiah 62:4
[2] Gal 4.4-5