Welcome as we celebrate this most special night of the year: the one on which we suspend all disbelief and are happy to believe the impossible. Welcome to the night when reindeer fly about in the sky, despite everything we know about the laws of physics, or, for that matter the habits of reindeer; the night when one fat guy dressed in red manages to deliver presents to homes all over the world, something Amazon requires thousands of poorly paid staff to achieve. For that matter, welcome to the night in which angels fill the sky to sing glory to God. Maybe we find that just as hard to believe. But tonight we do believe it, for the sake of the children, and maybe also for the sake of the child within ourselves.
So welcome to the night on which we dream of a better world. A world in which soldiers emerge from their trenches to embrace as friends and play a game of football. A world in which we can be children again, and innocent again, and our childhood world is sweet and peaceful and lovely, with angels and shepherds and kings, and a newborn child in a manger.
And then all too quickly it's gone. And the year’s gone too. We're back there in the grey winter world of jammed motorways and late trains, of colds and flu, of scraping frost off the car every morning, of dreading the next heating bill, and dreading too perhaps all the dire and dreadful things that 2017 seems likely to promise. In the grown-up world.
So very soon we’ll be packing away the tinsel and the lights, and with them the fairy tales and the legends and the carols and the Christmas pop songs, and the reindeer and fat jolly Santa and his hard working elves. And the dreams. And Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, and those angels that sang in the skies? Do we pack them away too? What if we didn’t, what if we stayed with them instead? After all, as a big sign I saw outside a church in Hereford reminded me last week, 'Jesus is the reason for the season'.
Now in one sense that’s not true. From the builders of Stonehenge onwards, people have wanted to do something at the winter solstice, to lighten up this darkest time of the year. Some of our familiar Christmas traditions may well go back almost to those times: the burning of yule logs, the way we deck our halls with holly and ivy - and mistletoe. We need something to cheer up the winter gloom. And our distant ancestors needed to carry out the rites that make sure the sun began his journey back to summer strength.
And that’s why we celebrate at Christmas a child who probably wasn’t in fact a Christmas baby. The Church simply took over the old pagan midwinter festival. And why not? We don’t know when Jesus was really born, but it feels right to celebrate him at this darkest time of the year, for we celebrate the one hailed in John’s Gospel as the Light of the World.
I can imagine the shepherds rubbing their eyes as the sky grew dark again after that vision of angels, and saying “Did we just see what we thought we saw, did we just hear what we thought we heard?”, as they looked down on the little town of Bethlehem. “Let’s go and see,” they said, and they could do that, but we can't. What can we do, then? How do we keep this child's birth as something real and true; as something more than the mix of stories and legends and fairy tales that are told and traded at Christmas?
We do so by looking beyond the birth itself. It’s a lovely story, but on its own it doesn’t mean much. It’s just a birth, just one more baby born into a cruel world. What makes this birth special is who this child is and what he is born among us to do. Of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew and Luke mention his birth in detail. But John speaks of the Word of God by whom all things were made being born among us. Divine love is made flesh, divine glory comes to dwell here on earth. So a manger in a humble stable contains the Word of God.
The simplicity and purity of the traditional Christmas story continues to catch our hearts, I think, for all the hype and commercial bustle of the modern version of the old midwinter festival. The child born in a stable refuses to be crowded out of the picture. If only it could always be like this, some part of us says, even when for the most part we’re all grown up and cynical and world-weary. But we know it can’t be. We have to grow up. And of course, this child does too.
I came across a little story about a man who was altogether cynical about religion. The story of Jesus being born among us had no meaning for him, he couldn’t see the point of it. Till one day a small bird got into the room where he was working. It fluttered about in increasing panic, risking all kinds of damage to itself as it crashed into furniture. He tried to shoo it out, opened windows, but nothing worked. Everything he did just seemed to work the bird up into a greater sense of panic. “If only I could be a bird,” he found himself thinking, “then I could lead it to safety.” And as he thought that, suddenly the penny dropped, and he understood.
The child of Bethlehem is born to lead us to safety, born to be our Saviour. Here is our God refusing to leave us as we are. At Bethlehem he takes the decisive, risky step only he can make; for he loves us even as we are, broken and sinful and imperfect, and he loves us too much to leave us like that. But it’s not the birth of a child but the man he becomes who will bring us salvation, and he will do it by the example of his life, by the challenge of his teaching; and by his death.
And here for me is what Christmas is or isn’t about. It can be just one night of magic, one anomalous day on which reindeer fly and stories have sweet happy endings, and the world is showered with stardust; it can be one day that’s a break from the grind and tedium and the general pointlessness of being human, before we launch ourselves into the January sales.
Or it can be the day that begins the story of salvation. The day that shows us how things are meant to be; a day that assures me that the Word of God is with us and will not abandon us, and that light really is stronger than darkness, that love really is stronger than hatred and sin, and that life really is stronger than death. Bethlehem may or may not have been silent and peaceful on holy night, probably in reality it was scruffy and noisy. However those shepherds found the place, what they saw was the Word of God incarnate among us.
A dog is not only for Christmas, we’re reminded by the sign in the back of many a car. Well, neither is faith only for Christmas. If you believe in the Baby, believe also in the man he grows up to be, and be prepared to follow him all the way to the cross on which he proves his love for you, for me, and even for those who ignore him or hate him.
Tonight he asks us not only to pause for a moment to see where he lies in a manger, but to invite him to take his place in our hearts and in our lives. He asks us to join ourselves to his love, to join him to be lights in the darkness of a world that is more than ever in need of light, and in need of love, and in need of peace. Peace may just be a one-day pious dream at Christmas, but it could be more than that: but only if we’re prepared to work for it and build it on foundations of care and concern, justice and love; and where better to start than by following the one born to be the Prince of peace?