Church of the Holy Rood, Carnoustie
Christmas Eve 2017
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” St John 1, 14
In recent days my thoughts have been turning away from the darkness and chill of midwinter and towards the balmy days of summer. In my imagination I’ve found myself sailing down the Clyde on the paddle steamer Waverley, a journey of which I’ve fond childhood memories. And in case you’re wondering what on earth a trip on a paddle steamer could possibly have to do with Christmas Eve, I can only ask you to be patient! All will be explained very soon.
On a lovely summer’s day – well this is my opinion anyway – there are few experiences to match a sail ‘doon the watter’, as they say in the West of Scotland. So, come with me in our imaginations as we climb up the gangplank and set foot on the deck of the Waverley. If it’s a nice day, and there are lots of other people on board, very soon a party atmosphere will develop. On the open deck and in the saloons adults and children alike will be enjoying the experience. There’ll be food and drink, games to play, conversation to enjoy, sights and sounds to savour. There may even be musical entertainment laid on, and for those who still know the words, songs to sing.
What have I just been describing – a sail ‘doon the watter’, or the traditional festivities that we associate with Christmas? It could have been either, for Christmas time is party time, a time for eating and drinking, playing, enjoying one another’s company, savouring sights and sounds even if they’re only on television, and singing old, familiar songs.
Christmas, like a steamer trip down the Clyde, can be experienced on more than one level. We’ve been thinking so far of what can be described as the surface level – the partying level, if you like. And parties are good fun. But what lies beneath the fun? One of my indelible childhood memories of the Waverley is of venturing below deck, standing on the viewing platform of the engine room, and watching the massive pistons that turn the paddle wheels. You can, of course, enjoy a trip on the Waverley without ever venturing down to the engine room, but to see those pistons in action adds a whole new level to the experience.
What is the Christmas equivalent of a visit to the engine room? You could say that it’s to stand before a nativity scene, like your beautiful one here, and see for yourself a representation of the historical events that lie behind all the festivities. The tragedy nowadays, however, is that for most people the partying level of Christmas is all that they ever experience. Just as there was no room for Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem long ago, so the infant Jesus is allowed little or no place amidst all the festivities. Bethlehem may be the engine room of Christmas and of Christianity, but fewer and fewer people seem to have any interest in visiting it.
Thinking again of the Waverley, the day is bound to dawn when she is no longer seaworthy, and at that point she will probably be permanently moored as a museum piece or floating restaurant. It may still be possible for people to party on board, and to visit the engine room, but as a ship she will be dead, lifeless. This is the kind of future that many people today see for Christianity – a once-great faith turned into a mere museum piece. But before we point the finger of blame towards a world that increasingly ignores us, we need to ask if the fault lies, in part at least, with ourselves and our reluctance to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of what Christmas is really all about.
If you go for a sail on the Waverley, you can choose either to spend the voyage on what we might call the party level, or to visit the engine room. But as an ordinary member of the public there’s an even deeper level to which you’re not admitted – the boiler room. The boiler room is the place where water is turned into steam, and without steam there’s nothing to cause the pistons to spring into life and drive the ship forward. Deeper than the partying level, deeper than the engine-room level, is the level where the boiler is located – the underlying but unseen source of power, without which the ship ceases to fulfil the purpose for which she was built.
In our secular society it’s difficult enough to speak openly of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and of the ‘engine-room’ historical events that took place in and around Bethlehem long ago, but it’s even harder to speak openly of the ‘boiler-room’ reality of what the first Christmas was all for. Unless, however, we’re prepared to proclaim what it was all for, the miracle of Bethlehem will be reduced to little more than a quaint and endearing story with little or no significance for the lives of individual women and men, and of our world as a whole.
In the boiler room of the Waverley, water becomes steam. In the boiler room of Christianity, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” To put this more plainly, the miracle of Bethlehem is that the full personal reality of God found expression in a human life identical to our own, so that we should no longer conceive of God as being an infinitely remote being, untouched by all the stresses and strains that constitute our life here on earth. The life of God is a reality that pervades our earthly existence in and as the risen and living Jesus, whose promise is that he will be with us always. Because of Jesus, who he was, who he is, and who he ever shall be, we know that God understands and cares.
In St Matthew’s Gospel the reality that lies at the heart of Christianity is described in these words: “‘[T]he virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” This is what St John means when he says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The fundamental message of Christmas is that God became one of us. This is the message that the world is not hearing, but how will it ever be heard, unless we, who believe it, are prepared to proclaim it?
That God became one of us is regarded as nonsense by atheists and secularists, as blasphemy by Muslims, and as an embarrassment by many liberal Christians, but to rip this belief out of the heart of Christianity and to expect it to remain a viable faith, would be as crazy as to strip the boiler out of the Waverley and expect her still to be able to ply up and down the Clyde.
So, this Christmas pay a visit to the boiler room of Christianity. Renew and deepen your understanding of what it means to say that the Word became flesh. Then you’ll understand more clearly what was going on in Bethlehem, the engine room of Christianity. This is the message that we are called to proclaim. Some will scoff, some will take offence, some will find us an embarrassment, but some – perhaps more than we might expect – will welcome the message with joy, not the synthetic and hollow joy of so much Christmas partying, but the deep and lasting joy of knowing that in Jesus God is with us, and we are with God, now and to all eternity.
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