Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Christmas 1 2014

Isaiah 61.10  -  62.3
Galatians 4.4-7
Luke 2.15-21

Between Christmas and New Year the television does lots of retrospectives. We are invited to pause and reflect. But the story that is told depends on the editor. Which pictures to use? Who to interview? Which bits of the past to recall? Whose vision of the future are we looking to? And, crucially, what to leave out?
Luke tells us the story of a birth in Bethlehem. And it’s one that we’re very familiar with. Too familiar, perhaps. It’s become a kind of retrospective. We are used to Christmas card images of a picturesque middle eastern town, under a starry sky, dusted with glitter, with Mary in her robe of azure blue and pious looking shepherds kneeling in adoration before the Child in the manger. We are so used to that image that we have become comfortable with it. We don’t see what Luke leaves out. And so we are not startled by what Luke includes. But we should be.
Let’s then read the story with fresh eyes and ears, and allow ourselves to be startled.
The first startling thing is that Jesus is born in Bethlehem and not in Nazareth where his family lived. And this is because of a decree from the Emperor Augustus that caused upheaval and movement of populations on a huge scale. Even before Jesus is born he belongs to a people living under foreign occupation, with their rights severely restricted, subject to the arbitrary decrees of a distant political power.
Then, in Bethlehem, once born, he is laid in a manger, because there was no room, not actually in an inn, the word is more general than that. There was no room in the lodging places where people would normally stay, which was mainly with distant relations.
So, no place for him. And this is the next startling thing. The Messiah is born as a member of a people who are outsiders to the political power of their day. And once he is born he finds himself an outsider yet again, to his own people. He is on the margins of a marginal race.
But, never mind, God is going to intervene to tell people about this. He sends angels from heaven to announce the birth of the Messiah and saviour of the world. Who to? Jesus’s family? Other than Mary and Joseph, who were there at the event, no. The townsfolk of Bethlehem, in the streets and houses round about? No. The mayor and corporation, the town councillors? No. The local Rabbi, or the priests in the temple in Jerusalem, only a few miles away? No. The Roman authorities, then, the centurions and tax collectors, perhaps even the Emperor Augustus, the ruler of the world? No.
So who are the angels sent to? Shepherds. This is the next startling thing. You can forget the sanitised images of shepherds from Christmas cards. Shepherds were rough people of poor reputation and very low social status. If they came into town respectable people would lock their doors and try to stand upwind of them. But mostly they didn’t come into town, except to the markets. They stayed outside, in the countryside, living rough among their sheep.
The Messiah is born, on the margins of a marginal people, and the only people who are told are those who are even more marginal. The birth of the Messiah happens on the outside, where people don’t look, where people don’t notice what is going on. But Luke does notice. The outside is where God is at work, and that is therefore the centre of his story. And what people normally think is the centre doesn’t feature at all.
It’s a bit like looking at Oxford Street in the Christmas sales, all glittering lights and crowds staggering beneath the weight of designer label shopping bags, and seeing only the people who sleep rough in the doorways of the stores at night.
But the shepherds, those on the margins, respond in faith. They have been told that the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord, is born for them. To you is born this day, says the angel. This is good news for all the people, but it is made known to those who are most on the outside. And so they go with haste, they rush to Bethlehem to see this child. This is an act of faith, and with it their whole world has changed.
They have left behind their sheep, up to now the centre of their world, and gone to seek instead a baby who is, in fact, the centre of God’s redeeming work, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. They see the child lying in the manger, in the feeding place. The unlikeliness of the scene does not put them off at all. They have heard the heavenly message, and they believe. Faith shows them what the outward senses cannot. And they return glorifying and praising God.
From being on the margins, outside, the shepherds have been brought into the centre where God is saving the world in Jesus. And the centre of their own world has been blown open. Faith in Jesus has opened to them the relationship with God for which we are all created.
Notice that their response is immediate, and simple. Faith is not a state of mind we have to work ourselves up into. Faith is not screwing up our eyes and holding our breath until we can believe six impossible things before breakfast. Faith is simply being open to receive a gift. And the gift that God wants to give us is himself, in Jesus.
Luke is such a good storyteller. At the beginning of his gospel the shepherds come to see the baby in the manger, the feeding place, and by faith they recognise the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord. And at the end, after the resurrection, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with a stranger on the road, but then, at the supper table, the feeding place, as he breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognise him.

So the shepherds bring us to the altar, our own feeding place, where Jesus still makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. For us, as for the shepherds, faith sees beyond outward appearances to the inner vision. For us, as for the shepherds, this changes our lives. In the Eucharist the marginal and the outsiders are welcomed into the centre where God is saving the world. In the Eucharist we come to see that we, too, have been outsiders to what really matters, the love of God in Jesus. And faith opens our hearts to the relationship for which we are created, so that we can return glorifying and praising God.

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