Seeing through Christmas
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
25 December 2009, 10:30 (Christmas Day)
The Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, stirred up some festive controversy a few weeks ago by de- bunking lots of Christmas Carols. He used words like inaccurate, sentimental, embarrassing. What, carols? Surely not! He got roundly condemned as an episcopal Scrooge.
You've lost the plot Bishop, people said. Nobody takes the words too seriously Bishop, but these carols connect us with a shared story and a common identity that is far more significant than mere words on a page and notes on a stave. It's not what the carols say that's important, Bishop, it's what they mean.
Along with everyone else I had a brief chuckle about this and was ready to move quickly on, when a tiny voice started to whisper inside my head, 'actually, this is quite important'. No, not all that stuff about Once In Royal David’s City being a form of Victorian behaviour control, but the way in which you're meant to look through some things rather than at them, if you want to glimpse the truth. Like the Christmas story.
Now, the very last thing I'd want to do on Christmas Day is to offend people by challenging cherished illusions about the Christmas story and suggesting that the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth are not meant to be taken at face value, but ....
... let me ask, do you think we are meant to look at these stories or to see through them?
You don't have to be a theological scholar to recognise the problems that the different nativity stories pose if you want to try and reconcile them with each other.
Matthew has wise men, Luke has shepherds and Mark and John have neither.
Matthew seems to think Mary and Joseph came from Bethlehem and only ended up in Nazareth after they had returned from being refugees in Egypt. He knows nothing about any shepherds.
Luke thinks Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth and only went to Bethlehem because of a census. He knows nothing about Egypt, and nothing about wise men.
Mark and John don't have any nativity story. John has a wonderful bit of theological poetry about Jesus as the eternal Word. Mark's story begins when Jesus is 30.
Let me try and explain what I think is happening here, and why it's important this Christmas Day 2009
→ put on glasses
This was the year I finally gave in, and started to wear these.
The thing about glasses is that they allow you to see everything else through their lens. You're not looking at the glass, you're looking through it in order to see something else.
The Christmas story in the Bible is like that - we're not meant to focus too much on what is in it, we're meant to look through it to see everything else in its light.
So rather than get hung up on the exact nature of the incarnation, the point is far more that the incarnation affects every single bit of the life we live today.
You don't put a mystery under the microscope. You simply gaze in wonder. And in the wonder, you are enriched and nourished to live your life with greater dignity, power and strength.
Nowhere in the field of human existence is this better demonstrated than in the work of art and artists. You could almost define an artist as someone who enables human beings to see the world and our lives differently.
Music, poetry, story-telling, photography, painting, theatre, film, sculpture - all of these things depict the reality of our existence in such a way as to stretch our understanding about why we are here and what it all means. We look through the lens of a work of art and see the world in a new way.
The fresco is a fascinating example of this. Iconography is very 2-dimensional, to the modern eye it is almost cartoon-like in its qualities, because the point of an icon is not that we are looking at it but it is looking at us. We are the ones being observed, and to meditate in front of an icon is to submit ourselves to divine observation, and to be changed.
There is something of the icon about the nativity story, in this very fundamental respect – it is not so much that we are looking at it, but that it is looking at us.
The nativity story is a work of art. And as with the Bishop of Croydon and the carol controversy, it's not so much the words of the nativity story that are important, not the detail, it's what it means – different authors reflecting in different ways on the mystery of God being born into our world. We call this the incarnation, the en-fleshing of God.
And quite simply, if we can bring ourselves to look through it rather than at it, it is a mystery that makes sense of so much that we experience in life.
All the building blocks of lifein its fulness are here, captured in this story:
God is not distant but close,
not absent but wonderfully present,
not invisible but humanized before our eyes,
not immune from suffering but deeply etched with suffering himself,
not on the side of the rich and powerful but the poor and powerless,
not just fully God but fully human as well
The name ‘Jesus’ is a work of art in itself, because it means ‘saviour’. I recently heard Bishop Brian define salvation as ‘releasing people from a trap’ – I like that. The birth of Christ is all part of God’s great plan to release us from the things that imprison us.
When Anish Kapoor set up his extraordinary exhibition at the Royal Academy recently, one of his exhibits was 'Shooting into the Corner', an enormous cannon that fired 1 kg of blood-red wax through a doorway onto a gallery wall opposite.
Every 20 minutes.
Some condemned this as self-indulgence, an artist too full of his own self-importance. Who am I to judge? All I know is that the contrast between the precision engineering of the cannon and the visceral, raw, elemental wax told a story that resonated with so many of the contrasts familiar to us within our human existence:
The mechanical and the organic
Speed and slowness
Predictability and unpredictability
Violence and passivity
Time and space
In telling this story every 20 minutes by way of an action we might call a birth (the firing of the wax against the wall), ‘shooting into the corner’ became a sort of nativity story.
Are we meant to look at the cannon and the wax? No. we are meant to see through them to things that are eternal and universal.
It is the same with Christmas. To know that God is close, that he has a human face, and experiences everything we do, from within our human skin, that he has come to rescue us, that he will not leave the world to its fate, however long it takes, that he constantly offers us a new beginning – the knowledge of these things transforms life for each and every one of us.
Look through it, not at it. And see the difference it makes...........