Lancelot Andrewes wrote in a sermon for Christmas:
Christ in the Sacrament is not altogether unlike Christ in the crib. To the crib we may well liken the husk or outward symbols of the Blessed Sacrament. Outwardly it seems little worth but it is rich of contents, as was the crib this day with Christ in it. For what are they but weak and poor elements of themselves? yet in them find we Christ. Even as they did this day in the beasts’ crib the food of angels; which very food our signs both represent and present unto us.
It reminds us that for all the pomp and beauty with which we surround this festival, the first Christmas was a very down-to-earth thing indeed. Not only did it involve a situation which is still all too regular in our current world – homelessness and poverty, forced migration and primitive healthcare – the solution to the young mother’s dilemma was dirty, smelly and inhospitable. For the Christian faith to ask us to look to this child in this kind of predicament as God on earth is a tall order indeed.
But as Andrewes reminds us, the crib of ordinary wood, set in a humble and conventional stable, amongst the ordinary animals of such a place is indeed precisely the place where we should begin to search for our God, and that much of our practice of the our faith demands that we continue to seek and find him amongst the dregs of our world, and not amongst the glitter and the gold. The more abject we can imagine the scene to be, the closer we get to the divine truth shining through the ordinariness of the surroundings.
Just think of all those presents that we spend so long on wrapping, using brightly-coloured paper, elaborate bows and gift tags. But once we hand over the gift, we can only hope that the present inside will be valued by the recipient to the same extent as we have planned. That’s the risk we take.
But it is quite the opposite with God’s gift of himself to us. Now the wrappings – the circumstances of his birth – are humble, ordinary and (let’s be honest) contemptible. Now it is God who takes the risk in giving, lest we do not even notice the gift because of the baseness of the wrappings. But inside – what a gift we believe there to be. Nothing less than God himself, willing us to love and serve him as he comes to serves us in humility and vulnerability.
Simplicity and perception
It is the shepherds who are the first to unwrap the present. Once again, it follows the pattern, for they were just about at the bottom of the social pile in Palestine. Where Herod later on with all his privilege and learning was unable to comprehend the birth of a king, it was the shepherds who successfully perceived the gift of God in that drab, cold and smelly cave. They were not wrapped up in wisdom or sophistication, they related to one of their own, but also saw one so different from themselves. It was a theme that was to recur throughout Jesus’ life. The Pharisees and the Scribes were so preoccupied with the precision of the faith that they could not see the truth when he walked in their midst. It took those who had to look up from the bottom of society to see in one of their own the fullness of God’s activity in the world.
The sacrament of the ordinary
So, Christmas recalls us to the truth that runs through Jesus’ life, to see the real God wrapped up in the baseness of our humanity. Two things seem to summon our attention; one looking out and the other looking in.
First, because God wrapped himself in the mantle of a slave’s flesh, laying down his divinity for our faulted humanity, we should resolve to value again the ordinary things of life, for within the likes of these is God likely to be encountered. God is hidden within the ordinary relationships which so often are overlooked and ignored. We are called again to see in the down-trodden and underprivileged the sort of raw material which first gave the Word-made-flesh his immediate setting. Our minds and hearts should turn again this Christmas to those in our world who are at the bottom, for therein was God first to be seen.
Secondly, as Andrewes reminds us, in sacramental forms within our Church liturgies we see this truth perfectly rehearsed for all to see. We believe that it is through the ordinary actions of washing and using the basic ingredient of water that we are made children of God and inheritors of his grace. Supremely it is in the bread and wine, ubiquitous elements of simple life in most civilizations of most ages, that we perceive the presence of Christ. At this Christmas season when he comes again to us in the simplicity of wrappings which marked his birth over two thousand years ago, let us heed the Church’s call to imitate the shepherds and fall down and worship him.
Chris Collins is Vicar of St Aidan’s, Sunderland.