image: Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)
Beginnings and Endings
Cesare Pavese: “The only joy in the world is to begin”
Life is full of beginnings. There is our own personal beginning, our birth but there are also many other life events that we see as beginnings in their own right. Such as our first day at school, the start of a new job, the first day in a new house, or the first day of retirement. There are also of course the faith orientated life events such as Baptism, receiving Communion, and for some, confirmation to the Church of England. But what about the new beginnings we miss without taking a second thought, the kind of event that we skip past because we don’t see its importance at the time; but only see its real importance later in our lives. It might be a passing chat with a stranger in a coffee shop, a moment in time that marks the start of a lasting relationship. It might even be something like a missed train or a wrong bus, which begins a cycle of events that in turn brings about a new beginning of sorts. Life is jammed packed full of new beginnings.
Although life is full of beginnings we also face at various times many endings. Or at least what we might experience as endings. The most vivid and emotional of these of course is seeing someone we love pass away. And although it is often said that in every ending there is a new beginning, when we experience profound loss we have no idea what that new beginning looks like.
One of the many amazing things about Christmas is that we celebrate the birth of Jesus already knowing how it ends, or at least how we think it ends. What I mean is Jesus came to earth as one of us, and he came to earth with a particular mission and part of that mission was that he should die, at a particular time in history. So in many ways when we celebrate Christmas we cannot do so in isolation from the rest of God’s story of salvation, we must in fact remember his birth and his death and his resurrection. And therefore tonight is really Christmas morning, Good Friday and Easter day, remembered explicitly as we come together tonight to break bread in the presence of God. The experience of communion in this way reminds us that beginnings and endings are often rolled into one - that celebration and suffering are frequently intertwined, that sometimes mourning accompanies merriment and fear with festival.
In the passage at the start of John’s Gospel - John describes God’s plan of salvation as an act of creation through the Word - Jesus Christ, an act of salvation that encompasses pain and suffering as well as the joy and celebration. It is the cosmic life event, God’s word made flesh to bring God’s plan into existence. It mysteriously embraces every beginning and ending we can think of. God’s word came to bring life, in sense to be the beginning of beginnings and the ending of endings
In deliberate parallel to the opening words of Genesis, John presents God as speaking salvation into existence. God’s word takes on human form and enters history in the person of Jesus. Just in the same way God called creation into being with his voice so in his ministry Jesus speaks the word and it happens: forgiveness and judgment, healing and illumination, mercy and grace, joy and love, freedom and resurrection. Everything broken and fallen, sinful and diseased, called into salvation by God’s spoken word. It is this that we celebrate tonight. We celebrate the knowledge that through the incarnation - God coming into our world in the form of Jesus - we are brought into the same space that God occupies. God has moved in to our neighbourhood.
I said at the start life is full of beginnings, those that stand as major milestones in life, but also those beginnings that slip by unnoticed. Surprisingly it is the beginnings that go unnoticed that often lead to the most amazing events in our lives. A missed bus can lead to a divine encounter, a surprise meeting could lead to a deep and meaningful relationship, a casual remark from a friend could awaken a spiritual calling. All of which could easily go unnoticed if we aren’t attentive to God’s activity in the world.
In the same way God’s saving plan, his act of creation through Jesus Christ, began as an ordinary event in a small backwater town in Palestine. A lowly, humble, seemingly unwelcome place was the birth place of God’s Chosen One. And Mary - an unassuming woman, in faith became the divine portal for the outworking of God’s redeeming light. You see the Incarnation was never intended to impose salvation on God’s people. In the beginning was meekness, humility, humbleness and vulnerability not triumphalism or conquest. Jesus throughout his ministry narrates salvation into being through leisurely conversation, intimate personal relationships, compassionate responses, and passionate prayer. Never imposing his divinity over the freewill of God’s people. Just simply coming into our neighbourhood to be flesh and blood, to be one of us. But do we notice his arrival?
I wonder how many people passed by that modest dwelling place in Bethlehem without noticing, I wonder how many people the shepherds spoke to on their way to see the babe – and if they had spoken to others – I wonder how many believed what they said, I wonder how many carried on without taking notice of that new beginning.
I wonder whether the magi shared the purpose of their pilgrimage to others – and again I wonder what the reaction would have been.
What is our reaction on this Christmas morn? Will we pass by this day, this new beginning without noticing the profound difference it could make in our lives?
And what will be our reaction to those other small beginnings in our lives, the ones that can go so easily unnoticed, but where God is possibly working out his plan for us. Because what the Incarnation teaches us is that God actually wants us to miss the train once in a while; he wants us to get on the wrong bus. He wants us to step outside of our normal routine just for a moment so we can take notice of what’s going on. He is asking us to stop and seek out Christ among us, to hear his call like the shepherds did, to look for the signs like the magi did, to step out in faith and trust God like Mary and Joseph did. To praise the babe in our midst as the angels did.
May the Incarnation mark for us the beginning of beginnings, the ending of endings, may the Alpha and the Omega, the word made flesh enter our lives – and may we respond, may we welcome the babe and allow Jesus to make a difference in our lives - not just today but in every new beginning to come.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God, and the word became flesh and blood. Amen.
Samaritans 116 123
Cruse Bereavement Support Helpline 0808 808 1677
Premier Christian Helpline 0300 111 0101
The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)
We have all experienced darkness.
We have all failed to see.
We have all hidden in the shadows.
We have all reached for the comfort of the night.
And some have experienced all these things with severe intensity.
Some have been so overwhelmed by darkness that even a pin prick of light, seen with open eyes, can be profoundly life changing.
Some have been to the very bottom of the darkest pit. Where death seems all too close, and tragically for some, has even felt appealing.
The fact of the matter is, in our communities there are people that feel just like this, right now. And yet, at Christmas, the world talks of light as if every festivity, every meal time, every shopping trip and every candle lit can make everything better, everything lighter. They don’t. For those who suffer with depression, low-self esteem, or stress; for those who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones; for those whose families are divided, or even harming, Christmas comes like the darkness. In fact for many of us, even if we do not share these same challenges, Christmas can feel heavy not light.
I was sat in the barbers on Friday waiting to have my haircut. A young man was in the chair ahead of me, he was talking to the barber about Christmas. This young man, probably about 22 years old was expressing his severe dislike of Christmas. “It is stressful.” He said. “I don’t have the money. There is too much expectation and not enough time.” He even went on to say, “It is the one time of the year where I feel the most hurt.”
Christmas comes like the darkness.
How can we take the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2-7) seriously? Especially when he says, ‘the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.’ What light? The latest John Lewis advert? The Black Friday glitzy adverts? The lights of late-night shopping? What light?
The message from Isaiah is clear. For those that sit in darkness, or fear, or failure, or want: rescue is coming!
For Christians this news of rescue comes in the shape and form of a child. This is the single reason the church is gathered on Christmas Eve: “a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”
For this child is the gift. This child is our light, our rescue, and our good news. When the church is at its best, and it is offering what it is called to offer, it takes its role as the stable and manger, cradling the child in its embrace with the world, in the embrace of our aching human hearts.
After all, it is for this light, this child given to us, that our painters have painted, our musicians composed, our architects designed, our martyrs died, our healers healed, our activists agitated, and our preachers preached. [Nancy Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, 2006]
More good works have been inspired by this child than any other. And yet more and more feel the pressures of Christmas and what it has become. So what can we say?
"It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
This is as true for us, as it was for Isaiah. Think of the darkness of the womb before new life meets the world. Think of the darkness of the tomb before that first Easter morn. Think of the darkness of the early morning shadows before the sun rises. Think of the darkness of the blind man’s gaze before the miraculous deeds of Jesus returned his sight. Think of the darkness you have witnessed yourself, before hope replaced it with light. At Christmas we must always remember that the light has come, and the light is coming.
And so rather than ask where the light is? Why not ask who the light is?
Ironically, in a season that is so filled with light, - Christmas trees, festive street lights, fireworks, candlelit Christmas dinner tables and the like, it can still end up feeling as though Christmas comes like the darkness. It can be a very difficult time for many many people. But when we ask the question – 'who is the real light?' then we can look beyond the many lights of the season, and see the one true light, the light that has come to enlighten everyone.
Jesus is indeed the light of the world. It is only his word and his message that can suppress the darkness from our lives. You can have as many Christmas lights, shopping days and inspirational adverts as you like, but unless we seek the one who is the true light, then Christmas will always be less than what it was meant to be.
And the third, and last thing is to say that it is only through Him, Jesus, that we can overcome the darkness in our lives. In the symbolic battle between light and darkness, of which the bible refers to frequently, the moment we think we can manage with our own light and strength, is the moment we are in danger of losing the fight. In my experience, and from what I have witnessed in the lives of others, those that have sought the light of God, and who have welcomed the Christ child into their lives, have also admitted in the same breath that they cannot do it alone. It is that same moment that light truly comes, and they receive the power to overcome darkness. Once we come to believe that a light greater than ourselves can restore us and rescue us, then we do indeed walk in the light of Christ.
For the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.
If you know someone who is really struggling this Christmas, who might also be suffering with depression or anxiety, or a deep sense of loss then please make sure you encourage them to talk to someone about it. Create some space for them, in the midst of the busyness of Christmas, so they have permission, to feel and to be heard. For those who need more urgent support, go with them to see there GP, help them pick up the phone to the Samaritans 116 123, or phone a bereavement support line like Cruse Bereavement Support Helpline 0808 808 1677 . For when we receive the light of Christ in our lives, we can share that same light with others.
Revd Jeremy Putnam
You may not know that the very first Black Friday was Nov 18th 1910, and it had nothing to do with shopping. On this day 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. The day earned its name from the violence meted out to protesters, some of it sexual, by the Metropolitan Police and male bystanders. Thanks to the courageous perseverance of these suffragette women, and even earlier the commitment of Chartism for the working class, there is now equality in voting. We still have a way to go though, inequality is still very present in our society.
You may be wondering why I am talking about Black Friday when the rest of the Church is probably talking about Advent & Christmas. Inequality was certainly very real at the time of Jesus’ birth. Consider Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary had no status, or societal influence. Her wealth was next to nothing, and she had no real material value that would’ve caused people to stand up and take notice. And yet because of this, God chooses Mary. In the eyes of the world she had nothing to give and yet Gabriel was sent to her with some extraordinary news. Mary was a young girl in a society that valued men and maturity; she was lowly and poor as her canticle of praise mentions. In other words, Mary was not someone who was favoured in the world, but Christians learn from the Gospels that she was indeed honoured in the eyes of God, she was in fact blessed because of her poverty.
It’s important to know that Mary’s status before God would have undoubtedly brought her shame. In her day, an unmarried woman expecting a child was cause for disgrace. It broke every social and familial law of acceptability. Not only would her condition bring shame on the family, but to try and explain it was somehow a blessing from God, that conception was by account of a visit from God’s messenger, well, this would have been blasphemy of the highest order. Nevertheless, she trusts God. Mary’s part in the Good News and the Incarnation is so inspiring, so extraordinary, and so liberating for us because of her faith.
Mary was the first champion of the Christian faith, showing such courage despite facing the possibility of social darkness, disgrace, shame and violence. Because of her faith the Word of God came into the world. To the world around her Mary had nothing to give. To us, as Christians, we learn that Mary had everything to give, and held nothing back. Her faith inspires us today.
And so, this Christmas I hope like Mary, you know the grace to trust God completely. There are many challenges still facing our society with regards to freedom and equality, and we do need boldness and faith to survive them and to challenge them. But my prayer this Advent and Christmas time is that we learn how loved we are by God through the inspiring faith and motherhood of Mary, and together make the changes God longs to see.
May God bless you and keep you this Christmastide.
Revd Jeremy Putnam.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.