Experienced worshippers know that the mood of unalloyed celebration that starts on Christmas Eve is short-lived in the Church’s calendar. On the day after Christmas Day, we give thanks to God for the first known Christian martyr, Stephen. The next day we remember the apostle and evangelist St John, and immediately after that – three days after Christmas Day – we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (innocent meaning doing no harm rather than being Not Guilty). As a child, I hated what seemed to be a killjoy anti-climax so soon after the great day. Even now, I am brought up short by the horror of the story we heard in today’s gospel reading. If you share my feelings, you will have felt something of the shock, that cognitive dissonance and disbelief, experienced by Glaswegian shoppers last week when confronted in the city centre by dead or injured bodies surrounded by Christmas presents.
But that, of course, brings us to the heart of what is Christian about Christmas. Today we hear that “Rachel is weeping for her children.” Today too we hear news from the Middle East as well as in our gospel reading that children continue to suffer at the hands of violent men. These are terrible accounts. Children are violated and killed in the grisly conquests of IS in Iraq and Syria, at the hands of people-traffickers, and indeed in abusive relationships in towns and villages in our own county.
But why do we remember these dreadful things in Christian worship? What is the point? Surely we are not required to wallow in misery and shame? No, indeed we are not, and anyway that would serve no purpose. We meet instead to proclaim our hope, to support each other by sharing that hope. We are called too to share that hope with those of our neighbours who do not yet share our hope.
The hope of Christmas is actually very hard for most people to grasp – otherwise there might be many more people celebrating with us today! Many of our neighbours understand that Christmas is a time for celebration, for giving presents, for hoping for a more peaceful world, perhaps. These are all fine things which we should respect. But those neighbours miss the heart of our Christian celebration. Christmas celebrates the fact that God has come into our world as an innocent child, or, as we say in our Creeds, God was incarnate – made flesh and blood. And because God shares our flesh and blood, we also share God’s very being. That is our Christian vocation, to live our flesh and blood lives, and at the same time to live in God’s divine being too. What most people find hard to take in is that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine. As a consequence we live in the hope of being fully human and fully divine as Jesus is.
There’s more. Because God has come into our world, has become incarnate, as an innocent child, it follows that every innocent child who comes into the world is a part of that divine being. Think of it. Every baby born comes to us as part of the divine being. Every flesh and blood baby is destined and called to become fully divine.
That’s why we welcome children into our church so that they can be helped to fulfil their divine destiny. That’s why it is the duty of all of us to care about children, all children, for they are all God’s children, part of the divine being. And, brothers and sisters, we were all once babies. We are all called to become divine, to support and encourage each other as we become divine. And we are all called to reach out in care to protect and to encourage our neighbours to fulfil their divine destiny, even, with God’s help, to reach those people who are so lost that they hurt and harm.
Christian Christmas is full of human emotion, but that is not the same as the rosy-tinted sentimentality you see in TV ads. It is full of joy, though not hiding from harsh or cruel realities. It is a time for children, though remembering that we adults are also children of God, called into reconciliation with our siblings. Christmas calls on us to open loving hearts, to face our own capacity for evil and to confront the evil in others. We are called to care and to protect. But, joy of joys, as we live out our vocation, we are also reminded that the love and peace we see in our Christmas crib is ours too. Yes, we called to serve, but we are also called to rest and revel in the love that God has for us who are born to be God’s children.