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A Present for Everybody

News St Martin – Talking Points

Monday 24 December 2012

A Christmas message from Revd Dr Sam Wells

I was 12 years old. It was 9.00pm on Christmas Eve. I had one sister. I realized with horror that I had nothing to give her in the morning. This was the seventies. There were no shops still open. Disaster. 

My mind traversed the options. Raid my personal library to find a book that looked untouched. Draw a picture of something I could pretend the shop had promised it would have in stock by the weekend. Beg my mother to pass one of her presents off as mine. Needless to say, I pursued the third option. It’s still part of my recurring Christmas nightmare. Christmas morning comes, and I’ve forgotten to get the most important person in my life a present.

We know Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Jesus, but somehow the biggest sense of guilt and anxiety is that there won’t be a present for everybody. Christmas becomes a test of our love and attention to one another, because the inappropriate or thoughtless gift is a sure way of telling our friend or family member that we don’t really know them, don’t truly care about them, don’t deeply understand them.

Just as we’re different in our tastes in presents, so we’re different in our tastes in faith. The Christmas story’s written for people like us – every different kind of person with every different kind of faith and every kind of scepticism. Let’s look at how the story meets each of us right where we are.

Let’s say you’re sceptical about the divine parts of the story because you believe it’s global power structures that make the world go round. Well, here’s a political story for you. The Emperor Augustus rules over the whole world in imitation of God, and records how many people he controls and how much money he can squeeze out of them. The magi appear and say there’s a new king being born. That panics the local puppet king Herod into murderous reaction. This is a very political story. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with politics,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical for a different reason. Let’s say for you life is about kindness and mercy and Christianity seems to be entrenched in meaningless rituals. Well, here’s a very human story for you. Mary’s expecting a baby. A pregnancy at 14 years old is no joke. She’s isolated and alone. And full of fear. And think about Joseph. His fiancée’s pregnant and the baby’s not his. So this is a very personal and tender story, about love, and isolation, and childbirth, and tragedy, and the testing of relationships. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with my personal experience,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical for another reason. Maybe to you, on a scientific level, the whole story seems like a fairy tale. But let’s look at what’s so miraculous and strange. There’s a star that guides the wise men across the desert. That star is telling us that this is a big event in heaven as well as on earth. There’s a company of angels who fill the sky and tell the shepherds that the savior is born. Those angels are messengers – that’s what the word angel means – and they mirror on a grand level what the shepherds are called to be on a humble level: messengers of good news to all people, including the despised and outcast shepherds. And there’s a virgin birth. That’s a way of saying this is God creating something out of nothing, just as on the day of creation. It’s that significant. So these stories aren’t childish. They’re communicating the mystery of God’s incarnation in the cosmic language of the time. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with cosmic reality,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical yet another reason. Maybe for you, life in general, and Christianity in particular, is all about empowering those who live with inadequate food, unequal treatment under the law, wretched accommodation, or terrible working conditions. And maybe it seems the Christmas story is a sentimental children’s tale of little donkeys and dusty roads. Well look again. The shepherds are people excluded from society because they can’t keep the purity laws. The holy family struggle to find accommodation in Bethlehem. Jesus becomes a refugee because of his parents’ fear of Herod’s jealousy. This story has homelessness, economic oppression and forced migration in it before you’ve even begun on the tax system and the movement of populations brought about by the census. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with social issues,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s finally say you’re sceptical because you just can’t make the leap to see this as a story about life, the universe and everything. Maybe for you Christmas is a time for love and family and close relationships and a bit of compassion and generosity. Well Christmas is fundamentally telling us the truth about God. And that truth involves two huge philosophical claims. Number one: there’s a logic about the way the universe is made, a logic that was there from the very beginning. Number two: that logic, which the evangelist St John calls “the Word,” isn’t abstract and arbitrary, but willed to become human flesh and blood and dwell among us. The word that Christians use for those two claims is “Christmas.” So Christmas really is about life, the universe and everything. There’s no aspect of human life and no dimension of God that isn’t wrapped up in Christmas. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with ultimate truth,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Have I missed anybody out? If I have, I hope I’ve given you the confidence to rummage around in this awesome story and find the source of your deepest longings and the subject of your deepest questions.

Because what the Christmas story is fundamentally about is God’s longing to be present to us in all our political, personal, cosmic, social and philosophical dimensions. God really has thought of everything and everybody. And yet God gives each one of us just the perfect present. Could it really be that God has spent eternity thinking about what would make the perfect present for each one of us?