Sermon at All Saints, Coddington, Christmas Midnight Mass 2016
Birth is very ordinary. It’s difficult, as most mothers would emphasize, and it’s painful, and it’s dangerous, but it’s very common. In the world each day there are 360,000 births – over a million every three days. So it’s amazing that here we are, when we should be tucked up in bed, thinking about one particular birth which happened about 2016 years ago and in a small town 2250 miles away. Of course we wouldn’t be thinking about it if it hadn’t been written about shortly after the event, and there’d be no reason to think about it if the baby hadn’t grown up to preach, to heal people and, though obviously a good person, to be beaten up and murdered, and then – and this is the most important bit – experienced by his friends to be alive again.
Jesus’ birth was ordinary, like yours and mine, but in retrospect is was seen to be unique, for in him, it came to be believed, was God himself going through the process of being born in order to personally live a human life. I believe we can say that God is involved in every birth and can live in and through every life. But here was something extra. This baby, this boy, this teenager, this preacher, this healer, this suffering and dying man, cannot be separated from God. They are bound together: they are one: he is one. And he is the one who has had more influence on the subsequent history of human kind than anyone else.
No wonder we remember this birth at Bethlehem and want to go there tonight in thought and in imagination. O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Well, that’s not the case today. Today it’s a bustling Palestinian town of 28,000 people, and a divided town – 2/3 Muslim, 1/3 Christian, with all the tensions that that brings. Divided too from its neighbour Israel, it’s surrounded on three sides by a 25 foot high concrete wall. Today Joseph and Mary wouldn’t be allowed to enter through the Israeli checkpoint. Regularly Palestinians, young and old, are detained there by the Israeli soldiers. Every now and then someone is shot.
But then 2000 years ago it was also a troubled place, a little town in a country occupied by a foreign army, where soldiers could order people about at will and under threat of punishment. And we’re told that Mary and Joseph were only there due to the demands of a Roman census, and when they got there, there was a housing shortage, well at least a lodging shortage. They almost had to sleep rough, and what they did find was rough enough.
Jesus was born into the real world, and in a little town with history. It was the City of David, Israel’s greatest king, where he grew up and where he was crowned, a thousand years before the time of Jesus. In the 2nd century it was destroyed by the Emperor Hadrian, but then in the 4th Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and a believer, promoted its rebuilding and commissioned the Church of the Nativity, reputed to be over the stable cave where Jesus was born. And not surprisingly this great church, one of the oldest in Christendom, has become through the next 16 hundred years a major destination of Christian pilgrimage.
Forty-two years ago I was fortunate enough to go there too – very memorable. The church has a long columned nave, and at the far right hand corner steps take you down into the cave – it’s called the grotto – where Jesus was born. There’s a small altar with 15 silver lamps hanging underneath – all very eastern orthodox – and there, set into the floor, a silver star, the very place where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Of course it may well not be the very place, but that doesn’t matter at all: the truth of his birth, with all that it signifies, is focussed on that spot, hallowed over the centuries by millions of adoring pilgrims. When you’re there, your doubts are suspended, and you are caught up in the wonder of it all.
But of course we don’t have to physically go there to experience that joyful peace and wonder of Christmas. O little village of Coddington, how still we see thee lie. Here tonight he comes to us; here tonight we can welcome him into our lives; here tonight we can faithfully and fervently worship him.
God is love, and those who live in love, live in him, and he lives in them. It is through this child born in the little town of Bethlehem so long ago that God’s love comes to us.
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human heart the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.