Sermon: A Shop Window in Newcastle
Preached on 24th December 2004
( Christmas Eve)
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
There is something beautiful in Newcastle this Christmas. Many of you will have seen it. It’s the Christmas shop windows at Fenwick’s department store. They are always legendary, but this year’s are particularly lovely. They show a sequence of scenes of the nativity. In the first, a father is reading the Christmas story to his children. The following windows illustrate that story: Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, their coming to the inn, the shepherds and the angels, the wise men and the star. Finally we see the holy family in the stable with the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi. A large crowd had gathered on the day I was there, and it was not just the children who were enraptured.
But want to congratulate Fenwicks for creating such a beautiful celebration of Christmas. If you agree with me, you may want to write to them too. Because in these politically correct days, it takes some courage to do this. There are many organisations that will not allow crib scenes on their Christmas cards and forbid any display of religious symbols in offices or shops for fear of offending people. Our own Town Hall coyly wishes us ‘Seasons Greetings’ rather than ‘Happy Christmas’, though the greeting on the Prince Bishops’ car-park, all credit to them, still does believe in Christmas.
The strange thing is that in our multi-cultural society, those of other faith traditions, and many without faith of their own, do not welcome the dumbing-down of our own religious traditions, the contempt, even, with which they are treated in some quarters. They want us to be robust about Christianity, celebrate Christmas with feeling. The Sun newspaper is running a ‘Save our Christmas’ campaign and maybe they are right. In Germany, if you go to those marvellous fairs that happen in every city-centre during Advent, you’ll find at the heart of all the buying and selling a Christmas crib, lovingly decorated in honour of the festival. They call it Christkindlmarkt – ‘Christ-child market’.
Perhaps I am just getting sentimental in late middle age, haunted by ghosts of Christmas past. But that nativity in a busy Newcastle street did stop me in my tracks, made me think about Christmas, what it was all for, what it meant. And I suppose that what moved me more than anything else about this most familiar of scenes was its utter simplicity. In that window, I saw more than a picture. It was a kind of icon, an image not just of something that happened 2000 years ago, but of what remains true today, what is fundamental for my life here and now. To gaze into that window was to be drawn through the window into the life of that Holy Family, and into the life of God himself, and to glimpse again deeply and eternally we are loved.
We are here to celebrate the dawn of Christmas Day. Our hearts are full of joy at the birth of the Saviour. Tonight we believe that our joy could last for ever. We look at him lying in his crib and wonder how we could ever be capable of cruelty or deceit, or wrongdoing. How is it possible, on this holy night, not to care about our neighbour, or the future of our planet, or about the homeless and refugee and those without hope? Yet I know myself well enough to realise that however vivid the nativity scene is tonight, the memory will fade as surely as the decorations will come down and the sales begin, and we emerge bleary-eyed from our partying to face the cruel reality of January. But it must not fade. And this is the work we must do tonight, and tomorrow, and through these days of Christmas: to make sure that the crib becomes an inward reality, give it room in our minds and hearts, allow it to change the way we are so that as we take this memory with us into the year ahead, it begins to transform our ordinary days.
What might this mean for all of us in our work and relationships; what might it mean for our broken world, our divided society?
I believe that if we can learn to love Jesus in all that awaits us, to recognise how he walks alongside us and lives within us, then we should not lose heart. Tonight is a night for rekindling hope, for as the gospel says, these tidings of great joy are for us and for all people. From the crib, the infant Jesus calls us to a new hope, a new vision and a new love. He knocks at the door of our lives and the world’s life and asks to be admitted. Our ‘yes’ to him tonight, in the good news we hear at his lips and in the sacrament we receive at his hands can make all the difference to how we walk with him into the future of another year. To welcome love in the Christ child’s coming is to become rich, to possess a wealth nothing else in life can give us. It is to find a new reason for being alive, and a new compassion for the pain of the world. As the poet says:
He wakes desires you may never forget,
He shows you stars you never saw before, He makes you share with him, for evermore,
The burden of the world’s divine regret. How wise you were to open not! And yet
How poor if you should turn him from the door.
(Sydney Royse Lysaght)
The first stanza of the poem cited at the end runs thus: If love should count you worthy, and should deign
One day and seek your door and be your guest, Pause! ere you draw the bolt and bid him rest,
If in your old content you would remain. For not alone he enters; in his train
Are angels in the mist, the lonely guest, Dreams of the unfulfilled and unposessed,
And sorrow, and life's immortal pain.