A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 25, 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
BBC Radio 4 Christmas Day Service
A couple of days ago I spoke to a woman who said, ‘My sister’s dying. We’d planned a last Christmas dinner together. But this Tier 4 has killed all that. Now I can’t see her at all. I’m not fussed about wasting the turkey. But I’m suddenly feeling I’m never going to see my sister again. It’s like all the feelings of grief I knew I’d get when she died – it’s like they’ve all gushed out now.’ That’s what’s happened these last few days. Tiers of one kind have turned into tears of another.
You can think of Christmas like a Russian doll, with three dolls inside each other. The inside doll is the Christmas story. The chaotic Roman census, disrupting everyone’s plans. Mary distressed and about to give birth. Joseph suspicious about who the father really is. The grubby and disorderly stable, with a cattle-manger turned into a make-do cradle. Borrowed swaddling clothes and gruesome birthing hay. Then glorious angels, shepherds surprised by joy, and magi crossing the desert with necks crooked to follow a star.
The outside doll is the warm glow of Christmas – hugs, unwise sweaters, relatives with antler alice bands, laughing children, well-worn songs, mulled wine, melodious carols, a full dining table with crackers and trimmings, a festooned tree and rapidly wrapped presents.
The middle doll is the part we usually don’t mention – frayed tempers in the kitchen, unfinished business at work, a child crying ‘He always gets the best presents!’, tetchy in-laws, dodgy relatives under the mistletoe, conversation straying onto dangerous territory, uncle having too much to drink, lingering resentment, two people slipping outside for what they say is a fag but everyone knows is a break from the tension.
This year it feels like the outer doll, with the warmth, hugs and laughter, has been snatched away from us. And that middle doll, with the anger, frustration, confusion and hurt, has been the story of the last nine months. Now it’s all been focused down into a week of wondering whether trying to have a normal Christmas in extraordinary times was a crazed denial of the deadliness of the mutating virus. That middle doll threatens to be the whole story this year, except remotely, by government announcement and confirmatory text that says, ‘It looks like we won’t be able to come.’
With the outer doll gone and the middle doll so troublesome, it’s time to cherish that inner doll. Remember, for the holy family, that very first Christmas was everything this Christmas is for us: it was lonely, isolated, disrupted, and dangerous. There was nothing sentimental about it: the nativity story is about homeless people, facing hardship and danger, in a country under military occupation, in a town where the ruler was prepared to kill children in
order to keep the throne. What we’re going through is hard; but it was tougher for the new-born child.
But look at that inner doll again and remember its story as as true today as it was 2000 years ago. Because at its heart it’s a story about love. That outer doll, the one with all the hugs and presents and carols – the one we miss so much this year: why do we miss it so terribly? Because it’s our best description of love: family, friends, precious people. We’re crying in the depths of our heart today, hoping no one will notice, because what we’re missing is love – the love that enables a woman to be with her dying sister one last time, the love that makes us realise however rubbish our last year has been there’s special people in the world who want to be with us even if we’ve lost our job, or found our business reduced to ruins, or crashed in our mental well-being. Christmas isn’t about TV and mince pies – it’s about love. We use the word Christmas because we’re shy of sounding needy or precious if we use the real word. The real word for Christmas is love, and what we’re frightened of this Christmas is that if we’re not together we won’t find that love, and we fear we can’t live without it.
Some while ago I was talking to a man I’d just got to know, and I dared to say, ‘It’s all about relationships, don’t you think?’ ‘What is?’ he replied. ‘Life,’ I said. ‘It’s all about love, about being with one another, in the end.’ He got angry. ‘Don’t talk to me about love,’ he retorted. ‘How’s that supposed to relate to me? My partner left years ago, my family live miles away, and my beloved dog just died. … I loved that dog. Where’s my love to go now?’ he almost shouted. ‘Where’s my love to go? – Tell me that.’
I took a risk and said, gently, ‘Think of it this way. Imagine eternity from God’s point of view. Imagine God having all love pent up like you have right now. But God’s got that love all pent up potentially forever. Like you, God’s thinking, “Where’s my love to go?” So God creates the universe. But God’s still got more love to give. So God creates life, and makes humanity, and calls a special people. But God’s yet got more love to give. So God comes among us as a tiny baby. God’s question “Where is my love to go?” is perhaps the most important one of all time. Because half the answer is the creation of the universe, and the other half is the incarnation. The day we find out why the universe was created is Christmas Day. Because on Christmas Day we discover the universe was created for us to be the place where God’s love could go. So when you ask yourself, “Where’s my love to go?”, you’re getting an insight into the very heart of God.’
This Christmas, fearful, lonely, isolated, disappointed, we’re all asking that same question: “Where’s my love to go?” We’re not getting an easy answer. We’re getting something else instead. What we’re getting instead is the discovery of what it’s like to be God. God created the universe from asking ‘Where is my love to go?’, and came among us to complete the answer to that question. This year our Christmas present is to dwell in the very heart of God.