My Christmas Morning Reflection in worship on 25 December 2019 at Queanbeyan Uniting Church.
Each week during Advent, as a congregation, we have been preparing for the celebration of this day. On each of the four Sundays in the season of Advent, we have affirmed our faith, and rejoiced in what Christmas means to people of faith. We have been oriented steadfastly towards this day; this day on which we recall and celebrate the birth of Jesus.
So, today, Christmas Day, we pause and ponder:
what does it mean, that Christ has come?
what does Christmas mean, for us, today?
1 At Christmas, we give presents to those we love.
You have no doubt experienced the delightful look of sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving first one, then another, and then many, presents, one after another. If it is more blessed to give than to receive, it is surely deeply rewarding to look at the sheer joy on the face of the young child, receiving.
And at Christmas, we give in abundance, with generosity, to those we love.
However, at Christmas we should not forget those who have received nothing, who have nothing, who exist on very little, who survive each day with little or no means of support.
Each year, during Advent, we recall the story of John the Baptist, who came as the messenger, to prepare the way, to announce the coming of the one chosen by God. In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. “If you have two coats”, he said, “give one to the person who asks you for it.”
This message, of giving to those in need from the abundance which we enjoy, has been a standard part of Christmas for churches like ours, over the past 70 years. It was that long ago that the idea of the Christmas Bowl originated, in the family celebrations in the Melbourne home of the Rev. Frank Byatt.
Over time, the simple bowl on the middle of the Christmas dinner table has become an organisation that is supported by all the major Christian denominations, as listed on the screen. This is the organisation that provides presents to people living in poverty, in temporary shelter, in areas ravaged by natural disasters, because of the giving of people like us, who have the capacity to give.
This Christmas, we are challenged to think about what we might be able to give away, and who it is that might benefit from our gift. The Christmas Bowl provides a simple and easy way for us to share the abundance that we are enjoying this day, with someone who has not been so blessed.
2 At Christmas, we enjoy feasting with those we love.
The table will no doubt be laden high, this day: overflowing with seafood, with turkey and ham, with vegetables; with Christmas cake, with mince pies, and Christmas pudding; with lollies and sweets in abundance.
When Elizabeth and I lived in England, we came to appreciate the way that the Christmas Dinner, in full northern hemisphere tradition, had developed. On the shortest day of the year, amidst cold, rain, perhaps even snow, with dusk falling at 3.00pm, then it just made perfect sense, after a late morning church service, to enjoy a big roast, with hearty servings, washed down with more-than-adequate glasses of liquid refreshment.
Australian Christmas dinners are different, in the heat and humidity of summer; glasses of wine are more often than not replaced with stubbies of beer—although we often continue some of the other inherited traditions. But whatever hemisphere we are in, we eat, and drink, and enjoy.
Christmas should mean that we do not forget those who have no food to eat. One of the things that the Christmas Bowl does, is provide food rations. It is doing this, right now, for Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, and Iraqis who have been displaced and are homeless; for refugees from Myanmar on the border with Thailand, and for the Rohinga families who have fled from violence and persecution into the camps of Bangladesh.
But the Christmas Bowl also provides the means for people to grow and harvest their own food locally. Act for Peace’s partner in Zimbabwe, Christian Care, works with farmers in drought-prone areas in southern Zimbabwe, where about 1,200 farmers are now directly benefiting from the conservation farming program that has been introduced. They have increased crop yields, which has dramatically improved the ability of these 1,200 men and women to meet their households’ food needs, as well as to unite farming communities around a productive development program, while at the same time improving the sustainability of the land.
But we do not need to go to Zimbabwe, or Bangladesh, or Iraq, or Jordan, to find hungry people. Every week, in this town, people from this church and other churches provide food for the hungry, friendship for the lonely, and a place of safety for those whose lives are fraught, just across the road, at St Benedict’s. And this important ministry to the local community ensures that people do not need to go without food, any day, any week.
3 At Christmas, we tell the story of the baby born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; and then, the story reports that this family hurriedly fled to another country, seeking safety until the threat was over.
Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise this part of the story. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.
As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals; there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the barnyard, all around. This was not the plan; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude.
The account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew, of the rapid flight that the family took, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, sets out very clearly that this was not a plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge.
Christmas, for us, challenges us to think about those who have no shelter; and especially, to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.
This is going on in so many places around the globe. There are 70.8 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes—that is almost three times the population of Australia.
There are currently 25.9 million people officially classified as refugees, meaning that they have a well-placed fear of persecution if they return to their homes. That is the category that Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have been in, had there been a United Nations High Commissioner for refugees in the first century.
The Christmas Bowl is working with the 100,000 Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka, precisely because of this fear of persecution. There are people today who still experience trials and persecution in far too many countries around the globe. The Christmas Bowl is one practical way that we can show we care, that we want to help such people.
4 Finally, at Christmas, let us remember the most unsavoury part of the story; the part we rarely hear on this day, this morning celebration: the part of the story that tells of a king who used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power.
Herod was a tyrant, fearful of any pretender to his throne. Matthew tells that he decreed that all infant males should be killed, to ensure that the baby Jesus would not vie for his throne, or contest his power. That is the fundamental reason why the family of Jesus fled to another country.
Deep at the heart of the Christmas story, then, is the message that we should not repeat the errors of using violence to enforce power. As followers of Jesus, we seek the way of the one born to bring peace to the world. How can we sing “peace on earth, and mercy mild”, unless we work for peace in our world today?
Jesus was committed to the way of peace; the story of his adult life bears this out, and the end of the story is an account of submission to violence, of turning the other cheek and allowing his own life to be taken, rather than to respond with force, violence, and power.
The organisation which administers the Christmas Bowl is called Act for Peace. It is committed to actions which ensure that, as justice is enacted, so peace might become a reality, for countless thousands of people around the world. One of the projects that the Christmas Bowl supports is a peace-building initiative in the Philippines, where workers are educating Indigenous people on their rights, training local leaders and engaging grassroots organisations to monitor and report on human rights violations.
So, today, as we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!”, let us work for peace in the world. As we carol, “All glory be to God on high, and to the world be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease,” let us support organizations which advocate peace with justice and strive to bring that reality from heaven, here, on to earth. And as we join with those herald angels, who “sing glory to the new-born King, peace on earth, and mercy mild”, may we always act for peace in the world. And as we sing, may the Christ child come.