Homily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2016.
2016 has been a year marked by big decisions, ones which will shape our future for years to come. I’m sure that this Christmas, many of you are deeply unsettled by one particular leap into the unknown that we’re about to take.
Am I talking about a new American president? No, that’s an ocean away.
Am I talking about Brexit? No, that’s a couple of years off at least, and I don’t want to talk politics today.
What I’m referring to, of course, is the Great British Bake-Off. After the two Christmas Specials, Bake-Off will leave the BBC for good. When it arrives on Channel 4, it will be the same, only different. Who knows what it will be like then?
There’s something very homely about Bake-Off. It’s about ordinary people gathering in a tent, somewhere out-of-the-way, and doing the everyday activity of working in a kitchen. The series winner gets lots of fame, but only a small prize – it’s as much about the taking part as the winning. And I think that makes Bake-Off very Christmassy indeed!
So come with me for a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, a homely tale of a tent pitched in a place where people gather, a story which begins with a bun in the oven and ends in the House of Bread.
What we’re honouring by coming to Church today is the birth of a child. Greek scholars will tell you that when the Bible says Jesus lived among us, the literal wording says “The Word become flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This tent was not planted in an idyllic country estate, but in the turmoil of the Middle East, under a vast empire controlled from Rome.
What we’re celebrating is not just the birth of a baby. All babies are special. This one was divine. Nine months ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the church celebrated the day when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a young maiden and asked her to become the mother of God. For nine months, the Virgin Mary kept him safe in her womb – there’s an ancient French carol which imagines Mary as a “bakerwoman” who received a grain to bake into golden bread. When we see Christian art, how do we know that a woman is Mary? Often, it’s because she’s holding the Christ-child. You could say that was her “signature bake”.
In ancient Israel, they had a strange custom about bread. Every week, twelve flat loaves were baked and placed on a special table in the Jewish Temple – it was called the “Bread of the Lord’s Presence”. At the end of the week, the priests ate the bread and put fresh loaves on the table. Normally it was kept hidden in the Holy Place where only the priests could see it, but three times a year, on major Jewish holidays, they brought out the bread and showed it to the people. When they did this, the priests cried out: “Behold, God’s love for you!” For the Jewish people, seeing this holy bread was as close as you could come on earth to seeing God’s face.
When did those three festivals take place? They were all festivals of thanksgiving. The Passover marked the first fruits of the harvest and the memory of the Hebrews being rescued from slavery in Egypt; that became our Easter. Seven weeks later, more crops would be harvested; that became our Pentecost. The third took place in late September, and the Jewish people would live in tents or booths for a few days, remembering how they were wanderers in the desert. We don’t have an equivalent Christian festival in September – we are celebrating Christmas now, in December. But we have no reason to believe Jesus was born on December 25th – the Church took over an old Roman festival of daylight triumphing over darkness in winter. Rather, the scholars tell us that the time of year when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night was late September. It was close to when the Jewish people were keeping their festival of booths that we saw the Word become flesh and pitch his tent among us!
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew name “Bethlehem” means the house of bread. The shepherds came and found baby Jesus lying in a manger. But what’s a manger? The name comes from the French manger, meaning “to eat”. It’s a trough for food. So here’s the story so far: God becomes a small baby, is born in “the house of bread” and is placed in a food trough. This same baby would grow into a man, a religious teacher and healer, who would say “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” All very mysterious! But then, the night before he was taken to be executed, he gave us his showstopper! He blessed bread and wine and told his friends, “This is my Body and Blood. Take it, eat it, drink it. Remember!”
In a few moments, I will use the following words to lead into the consecration of bread and wine on this altar:
For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.
A “mystery” means something with a deep meaning we can ponder deeply, just as Mary pondered the message that angels had appeared in the sky singing songs of glory before the shepherds came. 3000 years ago, God-the-Father established a rule that there should be “bread of God’s presence” in the Temple. 2000 years ago, God-the-Son was born in the house of bread and asked us to eat and drink his body and blood. This Christmas, I would like to offer you an invitation to enter deeply into this mystery.
In these few minutes, I don’t have time to address some really deep questions. Who is Jesus? Why did he die? How does God guide us? How can I resist evil? How can I make the most of my life? These questions are worth exploring, and these are some of the topics in our parish Alpha Course which begins on January 10th, and runs on Tuesday evenings until Easter. There’s an invitation to Alpha in your order of service.
Yes, we live in a time of great upheaval. Great things beyond our control will change in the world of politics. The Great British Bake-Off will be reinvented by Channel 4. Some will love it, some will hate it. God will not prevent us from experiencing change and uncertainty. But there is one thing that God does offer us – God wants to be with us. In a moment, we will say the Creed, the summary of what all Christians believe, and because it is Christmas, we will pause and kneel down when we hear that God became a human being. But why? It’s what happens next that’s the key. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” – for our sake. This is God’s love for you. This is the “Great Christmas Sake-Of” – baby Jesus was born to die for your sake. To find out why, I invite you to try Alpha!
Thanks to Alan de Ste Croix for a copy of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist which partially inspired this sermon.