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.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.