It’s a question I keep getting asked at this time of year: “Are you ready for Christmas?” I’ve had it from shopkeepers and ex-colleagues, and even from a funeral director as we waited at the crematorium.
It’s a question that assumes you have to put an awful lot of effort into ‘getting ready for Christmas’, and that you have to start your preparations a long time ahead, buying presents, planning menus, decorating the house with taste and style, sending all the cards out so they arrive on time. All in order to reach the perfection that the advertisements are constantly presenting us with: presents which every child in the family opens with delight, because, regardless of the expense, you’ve bought them everything they’ve asked for; meals of delicious food, served on stylishly decorated, candlelit tables, which the hostess with perfect makeup and not a hair out of place, dishes up with a calm smile; and homes where everyone is smiling and happy for the whole holiday, with never a hint of the disagreements over what to watch on TV, what to eat or drink, or the raking up of old family quarrels, which mean that the new year is one of the peak times for visits to family counsellors and initiating divorces.
If that’s the sort of ‘domestic goddess’ perfection that ‘being ready for Christmas’ entails, then no, I’m not ready for Christmas. Nor will I ever be!
But I’m not worried: because that’s not what God means by “Are you ready for Christmas?”
In his penultimate Christmas Pause for Thought broadcast as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2011, Rowan Williams warned us against expecting ‘the Perfect Christmas’. He reminded us that the first Christmas was not like that at all. He said: “The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events – a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that’s got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there…Not exactly a perfect holiday.“http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2283/archbishops-pause-for-thought-message#sthash.5eD8Z9qy.dpuf
Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, makes a similar point in the Christmas letter in the current See Round, when he writes about a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was fraught with all the difficulties and annoyances and mess-ups of present day life: “We had to get there through the town, like a symbol of the whole world with its guns and barbed wire and bombs, and all the hatred and injustice which cause them. We had to get there through the Church, like a symbol of the whole Church, with all its different traditions pushing and shoving and fighting, and mostly being all too human and getting it all wrong. Hardest of all, I had to get there through me, through my own irritation and annoyance, before I could reach the other bit of me, the sane, quiet bit where Jesus can be born.”
Both Rowan Williams and Jeffrey John make the same point: that God doesn’t wait until we’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before getting involved with us. The Divine doesn’t come to us apart from the mess, but it the middle of it.
Jesus wasn’t born in a perfect country. He was born in an obscure village in an occupied province on the outer fringes of a mighty empire. A country which housed a mix of ethnic groups and different religions, some of whom hated each other enough to want to kill each other. It was a country where different political groups had different ideas about how to survive: some thought co-operation with the powers that be was the way forward, others that violent rebellion was the only way to get things changed. It was a country where the elite were more interested in raking in money through taxes than improving the life of ordinary people. Does that sound familiar?
He wasn’t born into a perfect situation. Whether you’re reading Luke’s story of the imperial census requiring everyone to travel back to their tribal home town to register, or Matthew’s story of the murderous King Herod, warned by visionary magi of the birth of a rival king, and driving the Holy Family into exile by his massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem, it wasn’t the perfect situation in which to give birth to the Son of God.
Jesus wasn’t born into a perfect family or to perfect people either (if such people ever existed!).
We don’t know a lot about Joseph, who doesn’t get much of a role in the story of Jesus, though he must have played an important part in Jesus’s life. But from what we are told, he doesn’t seem to have been rich, or clever, or handsome, or successful in business – any of the things that are sometimes considered to be essentials in the perfect husband. What we are told was that he was a decent man, trying to make the best of a messy situation.
He had several options when Mary told him she was pregnant: he could have made a public fuss and got her punished; he could have rejected her and her child. In the event, he didn’t increase the mess by putting his male pride and legality first; instead of saying “it’s not my baby; it’s your problem; get lost!” he put love and mercy first, and accepted the child as his own, giving him a name and a secure home and protection, and bringing him up in such a caring and affirming way that Jesus used fatherhood as an image of his own relationship with God.
And, in spite of the efforts of the Church over 2000 years to turn her into a sort of semi-divine figure, Mary wasn’t especially clever, or intelligent, or pure, or full of faith or holy. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which we heard read at the Communion service on Wednesday makes that plain, as it adds Mary to the list of four women whose messy lives God used to fulfil the divine purpose.
The real Mary was a young, probably teenage, peasant girl, who found herself pregnant before she was properly married. She didn’t do anything to be chosen as the mother of the Messiah; but she willingly accepted her pregnancy as a call to co-operate with God, and faced the possibility of death or disgrace or rejection, with humility and courage. Instead of moaning that the child would ruin her life, and reminding him of the fact for the rest of his life, she accepted him as a gift from God, as son of God, and raised him to be the Spirit filled Saviour we follow, who was able to love and accept and welcome everyone else, no matter how messy their lives, as fellow children of God.
Life is messy.
Birth is messy.
God doesn’t wait till everything is ready and perfect. God came to Mary and Joseph at the first Christmas in all the messy circumstances of their lives, asking them to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in giving birth to and raising Jesus to fulfil his unique calling as Messiah and Saviour.
And they did.
God doesn’t wait until we’re ready, until we’ve stopped war and conflict, till we’ve solved world poverty and found a cure for cancer, and united all Christian denominations and convinced everyone of the reality of the divine.
God just comes to us this Christmas and every Christmas, and on every day between the Christmases, and asks us “Are you ready for Christmas? Are you ready to open your hearts and your homes, and your purses and your messy lives, and let me in? Will you let me be born again in you and will you co-operate with me to bring my love and salvation and hope into the world?”
And if we will only say ‘Yes’ as Mary and Joseph did, then God comes to us, and works with us in all the messiness, and, bit by bit, will transform the horror, and the pain, and the mess of the world, and of the Church and of ourselves into something that is more and more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
Because the mess doesn’t matter to the God who was born at Christmas as Immanuel, as God with us. The love and truth and hope that was found in that baby boy whose birth we are about to celebrate, can cope with any mess, no matter how bad, and redeem it; and can cope with us and redeem us to.
So may I wish you not only a joyful and holy Christmas, but also a messy Christmas; and may you know the presence of Immanuel, God with you, in all the mess as well as the good times of 2015, and for the rest of your lives too.