Sermon: Birth and Death at Christmas
Preached on 30th December 2007
(First Sunday of Christmas)
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
One of our Sunday School children said to his parents a couple of weeks ago that "Jesus must get really bored. He is born and dies every year". When I first asked his parents' permission to quote him I thought this sermon was going to go in a different direction, but then in the days immediately before Christmas we heard of bereavements for some members of the Cathedral community and, as I prepared for and then celebrated Christmas with this sermon in the back of my mind, I found myself remembering the funeral service I took the day after I was ordained priest. My ordination was four days before Christmas and I went from the powerful ordination service and party - the first ever to occur in that church and they celebrated in style since we'd also had confirmations earlier in the day - to the grief of a family who were bereaved in the midst of the tinsel and trappings of the Christmas preparations going on all around them.
Christmas is a time when many of us are aware of bereavements and losses, we cross people off our Christmas card lists because they have died during the year or letters arrive with sad news; and it is not only death that causes us loss, I know that some of you look back on a year which included of health, of mobility, of investments in Northern Rock, of the breakdown of family relationships. And looking beyond our own lives, we need to respond to the devastating loss of life as they have known it faced by asylum seekers, refugees in countries like Darfur, people in Iraq, and now in Pakistan.
How could I make sense of the juxtaposition of death and Christmas for the family whose funeral I took after my ordination? How can we do so when we face death or loss at Christmas? The only way I knew to do so with integrity was not to deny either the proximity of Christmas or the reality of their father's death, but to hold them together, to let the liturgy do its work (and the root meaning of the word "liturgy" is "the work of the people") by letting the story of the incarnation, of God come among us as a baby, provide the context and container for the death and resulting grief. This week I found the homily I preached at that Christmas funeral and, in quoting part of it, I have changed the name of the man who died:
"Being faced with death at this time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus forces us to face into how closely life and death are tied together. We do not ask to be born, and we do not ask to die. Both events happen to us. The words from scripture that I read at the beginning of the service remind us of this:
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
If we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.
One of the names of Jesus, which we remember particularly at Christmas, is "Emmanuel"; translated it means quite simply, "God with us". God is with us in life and in death, because we are the Lord's possession. It is an historical fact that God has come among us: born as a child in Bethlehem, God has entered our history and made it his own - thus making us his own. And Bill knew that. He believed in God's love for him, and lived his life on the premise that the message of Christmas is true - God is with us.
So, for Bill, we can rejoice that God has given him the Christmas gift of being in the Lord's presence. ... That is the ultimate Christmas gift - the gift of dying in the Lord and thus being in God's presence eternally. "
You may think it surprising that I should start a sermon on this first Sunday of Christmas by talking about death. You were perhaps equally surprised that, in a season when we should be awash with the Christmas story, the narrative of that birth does not feature in the readings we heard earlier. Surely we could expect the shepherds, even if it is too early for the wise men to emerge from the horizon bearing their strange gifts? But no, we have been given Isaiah as he contemplates the wonders of God's compassion for a wayward yet beloved people and Paul in prison writing to a young church. Paul quotes from what is thought to be an early Christian hymn which describes the incarnation in terms of Christ Jesus not counting equality with God as something to be grasped but emptying himself, being found in human form, and humbling himself to the point of death. That takes us way beyond the tranquillity of the manger scene as it is so readily depicted on our Christmas cards. And the hymns we have or will sing today also are less about what happened in the stable and more about some of its meaning, including the death of the baby whose birth we celebrate. The hymns, with the readings, ask us to look behind the familiar narrative and to hold birth alongside death.
Before Christmas, at the Mencap Carol Service where Mary and Joseph were played by vulnerable people who need support in their daily lives, a young woman walked the length of the cathedral nave carrying a five day old baby and placed it in the manger in front of Mary and Joseph. Then she walked away and left it with them: that vulnerable baby was entrusted to vulnerable people. What a picture of what God did for us, entrusting the Son of God to be born as a vulnerable baby to a couple about to flee for their lives into exile. Next day I watched part of the Liverpool Nativity on television which ended with a young couple, portraying Mary and Joseph as asylum seekers fleeing from Herod's latest edict to take their documents in to be checked, holding a baby and walking from the brightly lit stage into exile through the crowds which parted as they came and then closed around them, while Gabriel exhorted the people, "look after them, Liverpool". The final shots before the credits rolled were of the young mother holding her baby rather awkwardly and walking forward into an unknown future. The Christmas story is about the willingness of the Son of God to be born among us, a vulnerable baby in a vulnerable human family.
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."
Or, as the fourth century hymn by Prudentius puts it,
"He assumed this mortal body,
frail and feeble, doomed to die,
that the race from dust created
might not perish utterly,
which the dreadful law had sentenced
in the depths of hell to lie.
O how blest that wondrous birthday,
When the maid the curse retrieved,
Brought to birth mankind's salvation,
By the Holy Ghost conceived;
And the babe, the world's Redeemer,
In her loving arms received."
And in the last century Percy Dearmer gave another voice to that truth,
"Jesus, cradled in a manger,
For us facing every danger,
Living as a homeless stranger,
Make we thee our king most dear.
Jesus for thy people dying,
Risen Master, death defying,
Lord in heaven, thy grace supplying,
Keep us to thy presence near."
These hymns hold together the birth, death and resurrection of the Saviour, events which theologically are inseparable: they don't make sense on their own. Because, as Paul's first century hymn quotes goes on to say,
"And being found in human form,
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
What Paul did with this hymn, though, which perhaps made it different from how it was sung in the early church and thus makes it startling to his hearers, was to quote it not in the midst of a sermon in praise of God's mighty acts but in the context of a letter that addresses the mess of early church life. It seems it was not all sweetness and light in the church in Philippi in the first century, some of them were going at each other hammer and tongs and two women in the church, named in chapter 4 as Euodia and Synteche, needed help if they were ever to be reconciled. Paul refers to selfish ambition and conceit as being present in the church, as sadly they are to this day, and exhorts the church to set their disputes in the theological context of the work of Christ:
"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God..." and then he quotes the hymn.
In other words, Paul set the traumas faced by the church alongside the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not denying anything but letting the life of Christ provide the context for the Christians to face life as it was happening and provide the example for how they should act. That way they and we can hold together death and life with integrity; as the six year old said, "Every year Jesus is born and dies" or, as a funeral anthem puts it more eloquently, "In the midst of life we are in death."
The good news from the readings and hymns today is that the Christmas story is not just a narrative about events in a stable 2000 years ago, although it is that, it is about God forever holding together birth and death, despair and hope; it is about the way we live life in every sense as we, and as our incarnate Lord, know it. Or, as we heard from Isaiah,
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
Break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
And will have compassion on his suffering ones.
If we can take that Christmas message into the new year and live it with grace and conviction, then other people too can know God's compassion and grace in their lives. And that is the Christmas message the hurting world needs to hear.