About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Monday, 24 December 2018

On Christmas Eve: ten broadcast reflections

Introduction
Welcome to Premier Radio on Christmas Eve, this magical night of the year when we look forward to Christmas Day and all that it brings. My name is Michael Sadgrove and it’s a pleasure to be with you tonight. 
You’re joining us for two hours of Christmas music and carols, interspersed with Bible passages that tell the story of the first Christmas. We know these readings so well; for many of us they were part of our childhood Christmas and bring back lots of memories. But each year, we come back to them afresh, filled, maybe, with a new sense of wonder and delight at these “tidings of comfort and joy”. 
At least, that’s what I hope as we listen together as the Christmas story unfolds, and enjoy carols and Christmas music old and new. For they tell of how God has come among us in the infant Jesus, and the light and love that we see shining out of the crib where he is laid. During these two hours, I’ll be offering short meditations on themes in the Christmas story. But I don’t want words to get in the way. What matters is that we are drawn into the meaning of Christmas in whatever way we find it happening. 
Whatever you’re doing – whether you’re busy getting ready for tomorrow, or sitting down to relax after a demanding day, or driving to see family or friends, whether you have company or are on your own, I hope that this programme rekindles something of the magic of Christmas Eve. I hope it helps you to begin to celebrate this great festival by glimpsing once again the miracle and mystery of God’s great love for the world and for each one of us. And I hope – for myself as much as you – that we find we’re filled with humility and love as we gaze on the crib and the grace and truth that we see there in the face of the Christ Child. O come, let us adore him!
So let’s begin our time together with the special prayer for Christmas Eve.
Eternal God, you make us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ: grant that as we joyfully receive him as our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our judge; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

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1 Our Advent Hope

Reading: Isaiah 9.2,6,7
These past weeks we’ve been looking forward. For children, an Advent calendar is a way of counting the days leading up to Christmas with a door for each day. When I was little, the 24th day had especially big doors to open, and inside there would be a beautiful picture of the Christmas crib. I wasn’t brought up as a Christian, and didn’t go to church, but I remember being touched by it and thinking, here’s what Christmas must be about – something more than coloured lights and presents and too much to eat and drink.
The scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) are full of a sense of expectancy and longing. Take that reading we’ve just heard. It was written seven or eight centuries before the time of Jesus. It was a time when the people of Israel were in great trouble because of the threat of invasion by a powerful enemy nation. Their hearts were full of fear, says the prophet Isaiah, filled with forebodings at what tomorrow might bring. “The people who walked in darkness” he calls them, for that’s what it feels like when we are overtaken by alarm or anxiety. 
Isaiah’s answer to darkness and death is to paint a picture of an ideal king who will lead his people to safety. What names will he be called by, this great leader? Wonderful Counsellor, someone who is wise and of good judgment, able to guard us from being led into danger and adversity. Mighty God, someone who rules us with God’s own authority, sees as God sees, exercises justice and mercy on God’s behalf. Everlasting Father, a leader who cares for all his people as the best of parents would, protects us, nourishes us, holds us. Prince of Peace, a king whose reign means the good news that we are put together again as nations and as individuals, for he brings in a world that is reconciled, where at last there is “peace on earth, and goodwill to all” as the angels sang.
This vision of a glorious kingdom began to fill the longings of God’s people as the centuries passed. They were worn down by the endless struggle to survive let alone flourish in a hostile and alien world. Such a king, such a messiah who would reign with justice and righteousness – what good news that would be! What a great light to shine in the darkness that oppressed them! So when Jesus was born, people saw in him the fulfilment of those hopes and longings. To us a child is born, to us a son is given. Here at last was the promised one. Here at last was hope.
Let’s stay with that word for a moment. These last few weeks we call Advent, what have they really been for? Yes, of course we needed time to prepare for a great festival. But it’s about much much more. Because the best way of preparing for Christmas is to reawaken the hopes and longings that we find in the depths of our own souls. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel, like Israel at the time of the prophet, oppressed and even frightened by the darkness that presses in upon us, maybe occasionally, maybe often. It can be personal – if we’re ill, or in low spirits, or have lost someone we love, or a relationship has broken up, it can feel a very dark place indeed. Or we may feel it for a world that seems increasingly to be losing its way, whether it’s climate change or conflicts in so many places or simply wondering what is going to become of our nation at this time of far-reaching change.
To have hope makes all the difference. As I read Isaiah, I glimpse a vision of a better future that’s worth living for, indeed, worth giving my whole life to. It doesn’t mean everything is instantly flooded with light. But it does mean that God’s love for the world moves back where it belongs, to centre-stage. Because I look at the crib and know deep-down that all my longings and hungers are met in the holy Child who lies there. Advent keeps hope alive. Christmas shows us where it’s found. If we have hope in the God who is always among us and with us, then life can begin again. And so we pray, in the words of the next hymn, Come, thou long expected Jesus! 
Prayer
God our Father, this night the Saviour is born, and those who walk in darkness are seeing a great light. Help us, as we greet his birth with joy, to live in his light and share the good news of his love. We ask this for his sake. Amen

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2 The Glory of God

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-5
Here’s another reading from the Hebrew scriptures that we often hear during Advent. Like the last one, it comes from a time of hardship and distress. The people had been invaded and sent into exile in Babylon, a far-off, alien land. They had had to learn to make their home there. It was hard to think that God might still be with them in this desolate place. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” cries one of the Psalms. 
Christmas is a time when we think fondly of home. If we’re physically far away, then thoughts of home and family loom large at this time of year. That’s why we think of people who are in their own kind of exile at this moment: refugees, prisoners, asylum seekers, homeless men, women and children. And sometimes it’s a longing any of us can feel at times for what we’ve lost: a happy childhood home where we enjoyed many a happy Christmas surrounded by the love of our family. Or a time when our faith and hope were stronger than they are now because we’ve known disappointment or failure, or life has been cruel to us. Exile comes in many forms. And however we experience it, we long for home. 
This was where the exiles of the Hebrew Bible found themselves some five centuries before Christ. Many a prophet had scolded them for their injustices, their disloyalty to God, their ill-treatment of one another. They spoke of exile as an inevitable punishment for the ways they had disregarded God’s teaching. It would be a time to learn how to be God’s people once again, how to live kindly and responsibly and with the memory of how God had once made a covenant of love with them and bid them to live in the light of it. 
But now a different voice called out to them in that far-off land: a voice of gentleness and mercy, a voice that told them they had suffered enough, that it was time to embark on the journey home. The first word is comfort. How they must have been glad to hear it – just as we rejoice to hear “tidings of comfort and joy” again each year. And another great word follows hard on its heels. Speak tenderly, says the prophet. I love that word tender, so full of reassurance that compassion and love have come into the world again, flooding into hearts that are weary of sadness and sorrow and pain. 
So the prophet urges the exiles to think of their return home as a great act of God. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low: this is the language of a great journey homewards, a long march to freedom that God will bring about. Are there any words that are more exciting and expectant anywhere in the Hebrew Bible? 
There’s more. This work of God, this promised homecoming is going to lead to a  great unveiling of God’s splendour, not only to Israel but to the world. As we’ll hear shortly in the opening chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Centuries ago, Moses had asked God, “show me your glory”. And now that prayer is about to be answered. Indeed, Christmas means glory. In our very last reading, we’ll hear St John say about the incarnation, we beheld his glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. That’s what makes this festive season glorious: the grace and truth of God made visible among us in the birth of Jesus. We love the beauty of Christmas, the colours, the lights, the air of celebration. What’s it all for, if not to point to the greatest splendour we can ever know, the glory Moses and Isaiah longed to see. For them, it lay in the future. For us, it is already here in the Baby lying in the manger.
So Christmas means glory. The prophet can’t imagine anything more wonderful. When Christmas comes, it ought to thrill us because it’s as life-changing as Isaiah foresaw when he looked forward to the glory that would break into the world of exile and lostness and pain. Across the world children will be excited tonight because it’s Christmas Eve and tomorrow is nearly Why not let this Christmas reawaken our wonder too? 
Prayer
Lord Jesus, you are the splendour of light eternal. You have come among us full of grace and truth. Show us your glory as we celebrate your birth, and help us to be ready to welcome you with hearts filled with longing and love. We ask this for your name’s sake. Amen. 

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3 Good News for Mary
Reading: Luke 1.26-35, 38b
For most women and for the men in their lives, the news that a baby is on its way couldn’t be better. When a baby is wanted, when a baby is going to be born into an environment where he or she will be welcomed and cherished and loved, it’s the best news there could be.
So it was for Mary. O yes, it was hardly what she expected when the angel came to her and told her what was coming. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son. What could this mean, this announcement that she, a woman who was still unmarried and who hadn’t had sex, was destined to become a mother? It gets more mysterious with every word. And you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.  What could it all mean, this child of a poor peasant woman having a kingdom that would last for ever? 
There’s something awe-inspiring, something profoundly mysterious about every child’s birth. Perhaps that’s especially true of the first pregnancy. A mother has never done this amazing thing before, conceive a living being, feel her baby grow and move within her, her own flesh and blood and yet a separate person with his or her own unique characteristics. It is awe-inspiring the moment we stop taking it for granted and think about it. 
But on top of this there are the angel’s words to think about. What has been conceived within her, what she must now bring into the world and care for, is a child with a wholly extraordinary destiny. That name Jesus, a “deliverer”, after Joshua in the Hebrew scriptures who brought the Hebrews into the promised land; that talk about greatness, about a kingdom that would last for ever, what could it all mean? No wonder Mary pondered the angel’s words in her heart. 
On Christmas Eve we should ponder them too. St Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth makes much of the part Mary his mother plays in God’s coming among us in Jesus. Christian art on a thousand greetings cards, the poetry and music of this season celebrate her role as, we could say, the mother of our redemption. “All generations shall call me blessed” sings Mary in the song we know as the Magnificat which Luke records soon after the passage we heard. No wonder. What higher privilege, what greater blessing could there be than to bear in her womb the very Son of God, the Saviour of the World?  
Which is why the annunciation story concludes on what I imagine to be a hushed note of mystery and awe. The angel has told her that the Spirit of God will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overwhelm her. Mary has passed the point of arguments and questions. It is time to submit to God’s will. So she whispers her awe-struck “yes” to this news, “yes” to the blessing it will bring her, “yes” to what it will cost her. Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word. The words are spoken, the deed is done. Mary’s obedience is complete. The story of our redemption has begun.
We can see Mary as the exemplary mother, an eternal image of motherhood, an example to all of us who not only parent children but who care for people of every age, nurture them and help them to flourish. That’s a beautiful image in itself, full of grace as the angel said when he greeted her. But in a special sense, we see her as a mother to us all because it is through her willing obedience that salvation has come to our world. 
This annunciation, this meeting between the angel and a mortal woman is a symbol of so much that is enriching at beautiful at Christmas. I think we can see in it how God’s presence lights up our human lives from conception through all the passages of life: birth, childhood, adulthood and old age until we die. In the next passage from the Gospels that we’ll hear, Jesus is called Immanuel, which means “God is with us”. That’s the most precious promise Christmas can bring, that the Saviour is here in our very midst.
Prayer
Lord Jesus, God with us, blessed is Gabriel who brought good news; blessed is Mary, your mother and ours. Bless your church as Christmas arrives, and bless us your children as you come among us as Saviour. For your name’s sake, Amen.

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4 Good News for Joseph
Reading: Matthew 1.18-25
It isn’t only Mary who gets a visit from an angel. In St Luke’s nativity story, we don’t hear as much about Joseph as we do about Mary, but here in St Matthew’s account, he’s the one who is prominent. He and Mary are engaged to be married when the story opens. Then he learns that Mary is expecting a child, potentially a scandalous situation. Joseph, an honourable man, decides not to make a public disgrace of Mary as many men would have done. Instead, he intends to bring their betrothal to a quiet end. 
But the angel intervenes. He reassures Joseph that this pregnancy is nothing less than the work of God. Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. I doubt very much that this would have made it easier for Joseph: this poor man with a fiancĂ©e bearing a child conceived out of wedlock would still have to endure the pitying looks, the gossip and the scorn. When we hear the Christmas story, we perhaps don’t pay enough attention to the cost Jesus’ birth will have meant for both these good and righteous people, Joseph and Mary. They must have asked sometimes why God had made it so difficult for them. 
St Matthew doesn’t disclose what inner conflicts the couple may have had to bear during these months. Pregnancy is often an ordeal in any family, especially in cultures where childbearing carries real physical risks to the mother and her baby. How much more when God asks a couple to undertake the seeming impossible – to bring into the world the one who created it to begin with, and who is to be its very saviour. As we saw with Mary in the last reading, it called for obedience of an extraordinary kind. Mary’s words behold the servant of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word, could have been Joseph’s too. When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, he took her as his wife. If it hadn’t been for the willingness of them both, we wouldn’t be telling the Christmas story today. 
What do I find most precious in this story of the annunciation to Joseph? 
It’s in that little quotation from the Hebrew Bible that Matthew places at its heart. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel. It’s drawn from the prophet Isaiah again, who looked forward in our first reading to the birth of a king whose birth would usher in salvation for the people: his name will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here that child-king carries another name. Emmanuel simply means “God is with us”: rather different from that fine-sounding string of royal titles. It’s more direct, more personal, more intimate. 
God with us can mean many things. One of them is that God is on our side. In ancient Israel, that meant standing alongside the people and granting them victory against their foes. Our own enemies are harder to identify, but among them are the forces that diminish and destroy the life God wants us to enjoy: envy, pride, greed and the other deadly sins that corrupt our lives as nations or peoples, and as individual men and women. Christmas says to us that God comes in Jesus to show us a better way to live and to save us from being our worst selves to becoming our best. “Love overcomes all things”, and it’s precisely love that has come down to us at Christmas. 
The other aspect of God being with us is that he has at last come close to us, so close indeed that, as one medieval woman put it, “he is nearer to us than our own souls”. Some kinds of religion speak of a high god who is far away from the ordinary concerns of human beings. That’s not how the God of Christmas is. The opposite in fact. His love is tender and intimate; he wants to come as close to us as it’s possible to be, so we can call him our Father and he can call us children. 
We often say that Christmas is a time for families. On Christmas Eve, we celebrate the good news that God’s love makes a new family for us to belong to where we can find the best gifts of all – love, joy and peace, and a hope to sustain us as we travel through the year that lies ahead. 
Prayer
Eternal God, we thank you that you are with us at Christmas time, and with us till the end of time. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, make us into a new family of peace and joy so that Christ may be born in us each day. We ask this for his name’s sake. Amen


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5 Jesus is Born
Reading: Luke 2.1-7
We don’t know why the Roman emperor took it into his head to order a census, though we can be sure that maintaining the state revenues through taxation had a lot to do with it. The Romans did this kind of thing with ruthless efficiency. But you had to do the walking, not the tax authorities. If you were from Bethlehem, to Bethlehem you must go. So Joseph and Mary set out on their long journey south from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea – arduous enough at the best of times, doubly so when a pregnancy has run to full term. 
It’s worth noticing how St Luke places his story in the grand sweep of world affairs. Augustus, Quirinius, an emperor, a governor, locate the nativity in the context of the Roman empire which, in the time of Jesus, ruled the Mediterranean world. I think Luke wants to draw a subtle contrast between two kinds of power, human and divine. In ancient Rome, people would burn incense to the emperor and call him Kyrios, “Lord”. But here comes one who is Lord of all humanity, to whom heaven and earth bend the knee. Even the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil, had looked into the future and foreseen the infant whose birth would usher in the age of gold. In the birth of a child, the entire world order is about to be overturned. Christmas is as radical as that.
In the last reflection, I talked about the intimacy of Christmas. In these few verses we can see how skilfully St Luke plays with the two worlds in which Joseph and Mary move and in which Jesus is born: the great dramas of world history on the one hand, the intimacy of the manger on the other. You may have seen paintings of the nativity where the holy family are placed in a huge dark cave and the only point of light is around the crib and in the tiny illuminated faces of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. Who would notice the incarnation that’s almost lost in vast sombre spaces were it not for that little light that shines steadfastly in a small corner of the canvas? I think that catches the spirit of Luke’s story.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger. I once had to read those words at a school nativity when I was about five. I wanted to be someone important like Joseph or an angel. Instead I was merely a humble reader who didn’t need to dress up. 
As I read it today, I’m struck not by the immensity of it but the matter-of-fact way Luke tells it. At this point in the story, there are no angels singing, no procession of shepherds, certainly no palaces or state bedrooms fit for a king. I’ve already talked about the ordinariness of the nativity: one birth among thousands to a couple looking for a place to stay – so commonplace an event, and yet this is what makes it immense for us, that incarnation is not announced by trumpets but simply by a God who takes his place amid the humdrum everyday-ness of the world that is familiar to us.  
There was no room for them in the inn says the story. We’re right to see in that almost casual aside a central truth about Christmas. Even at his birth, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Images of homeless people, refugees, exiles and asylum-seekers come to mind. Whether the nativity happened in a stable or a cave, the point is the same, that both are places outside the warmth, comfort and safety provided by solid roof and walls. The text wants us to see a deep symbol in there being no room. That’s going to become a theme that runs right through Jesus’ life, culminating in his crucifixion “outside a city wall”. “Despised and rejected of men” says the prophet about the suffering servant of the Lord, whether it’s through conscious ill-will or neglect, or simply because of events and circumstances that have no capacity for human feeling. 
Many of the poor will tell us that they are victims because of things that happen over which they have no control. We must not forget them at Christmas when there was no room at the inn but hold them in our hearts, and follow whatever justice and charity prompt us to do.  
Prayer
God our Father, on this night that the Saviour is born, be with all who walk in darkness, that they may see your great light. May we all greet the birth of Christ with joy, and may we always make room in his name for those who need help and care and your healing touch of love. Through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

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6 The Angels Celebrate Jesus’ Birth
Reading: Luke 2.8-14
There are two stories of the nativity in the Bible, St Matthew’s and St Luke’s. We’ve already seen how, when it comes to the news that a child is going to be born, it’s brought to Mary in Luke’s account, and to Joseph in Matthew’s. 
There’s another divergence we notice as we read on. Each of the two stories tells how groups of visitors made journeys to worship the infant Jesus. But they’re very different kinds of pilgrim. St Matthew brings people who are rich and clever and influential: the magi or wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We’ll meet them later on. By contrast, St Luke brings lowly shepherds, humble men who have no glittering prizes to offer – only their simplicity and their hearts’ love and devotion.
These shepherds out in the fields endear themselves to us. We love the idea that the first people to hear about the birth of Jesus were not people of power, not polished men and women of the world but these ordinary, rough-hewn peasants. In the Judea of two thousand years ago, shepherds were among the poorest and most despised of workers. In their lack of sophistication they were like Jesus’ first followers and like the first Christian communities. As St Paul says in one of his letters, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”.
But suddenly, out in the fields, the dark night wakes and glory breaks. The angel is back and there is light and splendour all round. How could you not be alarmed when the Almighty all at once appears in front of you? Like Moses at the burning bush, you don’t trifle with the divine when you’re confronted with it. 
But into their fear this messenger from God speaks the word they need to hear. “Do not be afraid.” We heard the same reassurance earlier when the angel visited Mary. “Fear not!” For the angel has not come to sound an alarm but to bring good news of great joy. And this news is not only for them or for Bethlehem or even for Judea only, but for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord
The language is radiant. There is singing in the night air, everything is goodness and grace and gratefulness. A new day is dawning as a new king is promised. But what’s this? This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. “Unto us a son is born” had said the prophet about the coming of the Prince of Peace. But lying in a manger? Hardly where you expect to find a royal baby. How could it make any sense?
So we’re back to this theme in the Christmas story that matters so much. We saw in the last passage how Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. That seemed to sum up so much about how God comes among us: not with clouds of glory (at least, not in this world) but in great simplicity. It’s as if God is not only humble enough to be born as a human being, but chooses the humblest of circumstances in which to do it. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” says St Paul. That is the profoundest truth about the incarnation. Not everyone would “get” it. But the shepherds do.
Good news is the literal meaning of the word Gospel. Good news of great joy is what tonight is about, says the angel. Even in our secular age, even the hardest of hearts can be moved by the story of a child who is born to bring peace and goodwill into the world. Even the most gloomy of souls find their spirits lifted at the thought of peace on earth however elusive it may seem. We should treasure our feeling for joy and happiness at Christmas time. 
And the more we can be thankful for this good news of great joy that touches minds and hearts in ways that transform our vision of life, the more chance there is that Christmas will overflow into the year ahead and help us face it with a firm hope in God that doesn’t waver. 
And the more likely we are to sing with the angels, Glory to God in the highest – not just at Christmas time, but all our lives.
Prayer
God our Father, your Son’s birth was heralded by the joyful songs of angels, may the light of faith illumine our hearts and always shine out in our lives; through him who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

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7 The Shepherds Go to the Manger
Reading: Luke 2.15-20
We’re still with the shepherds in St Luke. With songs of glory ringing in their ears, they set off for Bethlehem to see this that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. With haste says the story, for who would not want to see for themselves how this marvellous news of great joy has come true, not just for them but for all people. 
Let’s think about the journey they make. Not a long pilgrimage, not like the magi in Matthew’s Gospel, for the shepherds’ fields were probably within sight of the City of David. But as a journey of the spirit, it must have felt a world away. Caves and mangers they know about, and childbirth and parenting too. But what have angels and kings and messiahs and big thoughts about peace and goodwill got to do with the worlds humble shepherds inhabit?
I ask myself on Christmas Eve: what has this beautiful story of a Child in a manger got to do with our world twenty centuries later? What has it got to do with me?
The short answer is, everything! It takes imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the shepherds and make the journey they made to the child lying in the manger. Maybe we know the story too well because we have heard it so many times. So the question is, how could we hear it in a new way? Christmas carols and music, art, poetry and literature can help bring familiar stories alive again, or perhaps take us back to childhood again when we were alive to their power to touch us because they were so fresh and vivid. 
“Going to Bethlehem” is the journey we’re making in this broadcast on Christmas Eve. We’ve seen how the coming of a Messiah was eagerly looked forward to by the prophets of old, how angels come to both Joseph and Mary to announce that the time has come. We’ve followed Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and witnessed the Infant being born and laid in a manger. We’ve heard how angels told the shepherds the news and how they lost no time in coming to find the Christ Child themselves. 
There are journeys in all these stories. Some of those who are part of the Christmas story were far off; some were nearer; some were as close as can be. I guess that on Christmas Eve, this is true of all of us. My question to myself is, how can I make this journey too, draw a little nearer to the centre of the story so that I discover Jesus in his manger and encounter God’s burning heart of love?
St Luke is the best storyteller in the New Testament. He ends his account of the nativity very beautifully, in a way that leaves us profoundly satisfied. There’s still the idea of journeying, always an important theme in this Gospel. He says that when the shepherds had visited the manger, they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 
How we make the return journey is just as important as setting out in the first place. We shouldn’t be the same people we were before when we arrive home. Something should have touched us, changed our lives in some way. 
That’s certainly true of the shepherds. When we met them they were filled with fear. Now they are overflowing with gratitude and praise. They were given news of great joy. Now they know in their own experience what this feels like. I said in the last reflection that we haven’t lost our instinct for joy at Christmas time. But we need to find it in the right place. On Christmas Eve, I expect many of us are finding it in the families and friends with whom we’re sharing this celebration, and in the pleasures of eating and drinking together, and in giving and receiving gifts. We are privileged if we have these things to enjoy. Many don’t, and we want to hold in our thoughts those for whom Christmas is a lonely, painful or difficult time.
But I believe that the Christ Child is born for all of us, and lives for all of us, whoever we are, whatever our situation. If we can imitate the shepherds and grow the sense of gratitude and praise within us, it makes all the difference. It transforms the way we see the world and how we are with one another. It fills us with great hope for the future, because if God is so good, there is a reason for being alive. God is with us for ever. We take heart.
Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, in your crib you humbled yourself to share our birth: bring us with the shepherds to kneel before your holy cradle, that we may come to sing with your angels your glorious praises in heaven. We ask this for your love’s sake. Amen.

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8 The Journey of the Magi
Reading: Matthew 2.1-12
Mary and Joseph make their journey to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. The shepherds journey to the Child in the manger. And now it’s the turn of far-off pilgrims to journey to the Infant King. 
We call them the magi. They weren’t kings, and there weren’t necessarily only three of them, whatever the carol says. St Matthew says they were “wise men from the east”, sages then, probably practising an ancient faith like Zoroastrianism, maybe astrologers who saw patterns in the night sky from which they concluded that a momentous birth must have happened in Palestine. Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage. 
“Pay him homage.” If the great painters are right, this is what Joseph and Mary do, and what the shepherds do, for how else should we recognise the birth of this Holy Child than by kneeling before him and offering all the love and worship we have to give? St Matthew makes it explicit in his story of the wise men. They follow the star until it stops over the place where the Child is. They are overwhelmed with joy says the narrative. And this is before they even get inside! On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 
I try to imagine myself as part of this peaceful scene. The joy at the Child’s birth is not partying and merriment but a quiet, profound thankfulness. Not many words are spoken because they aren’t needed. Everyone’s happiness is complete. God has come among us mortals and we are transfigured by this epiphany, this marvellous vision of love in our very midst. To be overwhelmed with joy could make us want to sing and dance, and that would be good. But then it would make us want to gaze in contemplative wonder, love and praise. That would quieten our restless spirits, make us still in the presence of the Lord. And that could be even better. 
We often say that Christmas is a time to think of other people as well as ourselves. We want to help our children find as much pleasure – maybe even more - in giving as well as getting. We quote a saying of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. The magi are among the great givers of the Bible. The gifts they brought with them on their long journey were immensely valuable. We can see all kinds of symbolism in them: gold fit for a king; incense because in him, Immanuel, God himself is with us; myrrh, a perfume for royalty, and perhaps for embalming too – this king must die. The point is that these worshippers give of their treasure. These are not token gifts: they stand for everything the wise men have to offer. For when you are overwhelmed with joy because of someone you love, you would give anything. When love surrounds us, how can we hold anything back?
And what we do at Christmas out of love for one another, we do for God. We do it supremely for God, because at this festival we celebrate the generosity of the greatest Giver of all. When we sing about how love came down at Christmas time, we’re recalling that God’s tender, self-emptying, self-giving love lies at the heart of everything. St John says in what’s perhaps the best-known verse in the Bible, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. This is the glory of Incarnation. This is what creates the hush of expectancy and adoration, and overwhelms us with joy as it did the magi. This is the true meaning of Christmas. 
Without it, our celebrations would be empty. It’s a hollow festival that has the gifts, the feasting and the fun but misses the central meaning that makes it real. The journey of the magi is an important part of the Christmas story because it makes us ask the question, what is it all for? Why do we go to all this trouble at Christmas time? Their precious gifts show us the answer. They open their treasure chests and lay their offerings at the feet of this Infant because he, the Holy Child is none other than the God who holds creation in an embrace of love, pure universal love, love without limit, love without end. 
Prayer
Eternal God, the wise men brought precious gifts to greet your Son’s birth. We have nothing of our own to bring but what you treasure most, our humble, thankful hearts. These we offer at your throne of grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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9 The Flight into Egypt
Reading: Matthew 2.13-15, 19-21
When King Herod heard about the Child who had been born King of the Jews, he was afraid. Tyrants always fear that someone will come along and usurp them which is why gods swallowing their own young are a well-known theme in ancient mythology. Will this little tiny Child who is already being called a king, pose a threat to this mortal kingdom? Herod is alarmed. When you have found him, bring me word so that I too may go and pay him homage he instructs the magi. But they know better. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
So they are safe, and Jesus is safe for now. But Joseph’s angel is back again with an urgent warning. Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt and remain there, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. How his heart must have sunk: first the journey to Bethlehem to be registered, then finding no room at the inn, then the ordeals of childbirth, and now another long march to Egypt: away from Bethlehem, away from Nazareth, away from warmth and shelter and home. A hard and cold coming they had of it, the Holy Family in this bitter-sweet nativity. 
It’s a dark episode in St Matthew’s nativity story. We don’t hear it read much in the Christmas season, though our carols sing about Herod’s rage, and bereaved mothers lamenting their children. “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood.” The massacre of the Innocents doesn’t sit well with our desire for a Christmas where we can shut the door on human need, and not have to think about the pain of others for a while.
But this story is a vital part of Christmas for precisely this reason. Matthew and Luke don’t shy away from showing how the Christ Child is born into a world where so much that happens is wrong. We saw how the Infant, laid in a manger, symbolised the voiceless and helpless of our world – the homeless, refugees, the vulnerable of all ages, the injured and the wronged. The flight into Egypt and Herod’s murder of Bethlehem’s children underlines how seriously this story engages with the real world. 
I find that Christmas sharpens and intensifies my feeling for people who are suffering. It’s unthinkable that anyone should suffer while we are celebrating, whether it’s people in far-off places of war, persecution or hunger, or people on our own doorstep: children who are cruelly used, the homeless, the despairing, the lonely. So our reading about Herod and the innocents paints a picture of a world I already know. We saw in the journey of the magi how the gift of God’s love inspired them to make their own response of love. Well, here is the world, embedded in the Christmas story, where God asks us to care and to give in our turn, to give as generously as we know how, to give out of gratitude for the God who so loved that he gave, so that others may have a better life, and a merrier Christmas, and a happier new year.
There’s another point to ponder. One of the gifts of the magi was myrrh. I suggested it could be a symbol of embalming, pointing forward to the destiny of this King to die out of time, to suffer at the hands of cruel men. For now, the Infant is safe from the swords and spears that would destroy him. But not for ever. There will come a day when he will be strung up on a cross and have his side pierced by a weapon of war, and then it will be his own blood that will flow. He does not know it yet, but like the innocent children murdered by a tyrant, he too will be a Holy Innocent put to death by a raging mob. 
All this isn’t to cast a shadow over Christmas. But it is to help it to be not only a happy but also a truthful Christmas. The story insists on it. Not to leave us hopeless at the state of the world, but to welcome into it the One who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows, so that our festival can touch and change us so that we ask what we can do in our turn to make a difference to the lives of others.
Prayer
Heavenly Father, your children suffered at the hands of Herod though they had done no wrong. We pray for all who are cruelly mistreated in our own day, especially the young, and ask that you will help us surround them with our care and keep them safe from harm. For the sake of innocent Jesus who died for their sake and ours. Amen

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10 Grace and Truth in the Incarnation
Reading: John 1.1-14
This is the most majestic reading of them all. Up to now we’ve been telling the story of the Nativity in the words of St Matthew and St Luke. St John doesn’t tell a story of how Jesus was born. But he does begin his gospel with this profound meditation on the Incarnation, what it means that the Son of God has come into the world. 
In the beginning… Those words take us back to where time itself began, the creation story in the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But John’s beginning introduces us to a startling new idea. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This Word is Logos in Greek, God’s mind, God’s wisdom, God’s purpose to bring creation into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
This broadcast began with the reading from Isaiah, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Now St John shows us what, or rather who, that light is that the world has longed for, this true light which enlightens everyone, coming into the world. It is God incarnate who has become one of us, immensity embodied as a human being, “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”, to quote Genesis again. The Word became flesh and lived among us he acclaims. None other than in Jesus of Nazareth whose birth we are celebrating in this holy season. All along, says St John, in this baby born in such hard circumstances, laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn, hurried down to Egypt to be saved from Herod’s murderous intentions – all along we were gazing at the incarnate Son of God, indeed, gazing into God’s very heart. The angels knew it. Did the shepherds know it? The ox and the ass even? The magi? Did we know it when we first heard the story?
That’s the question Christmas puts to me. Who and what do we see in the Christmas crib that many of us place in our homes at this time of year? St John answers in the words that bring this magnificent passage to a climax. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. I quoted these words when we heard that reading from Isaiah, And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. John is saying: the time for those words to be fulfilled is now. Moses’ prayer, show me your glory, has been answered. We look into the face of the incarnate God, the Word made flesh, the only begotten of the Father, and there, at last, at long last, we see his glory.
Once again, I’m saying: this is what makes Christmas glorious. There’s so much that makes it enjoyable, so much that makes it beautiful, and, yes, quite a lot that trivialises it too, if we are honest. But there’s only one place where we see glory. And let’s be clear how John understands that great word. Full of grace and truth he says. Not the splendour of principalities and powers, thrones of state and royal palaces. No, leave those for others. This King’s reign is about grace and truth, about divine generosity and self-emptying love. He has come to give himself for the life of the world says the evangelist. He has come to put us together again, give our lives back to us, transform us, make us truly alive. 
This calls for a response from us. God’s heart has spoken to us in his Son. This has to go deeper than some annual episode of warm good will we get at this time of year and which evaporates within hours of Christmas Day. How will our hearts speak back to his? John tells us. To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. He is saying that Christmas has only done its work when we say “yes” to this glory full of grace and truth that we see in the incarnate Word. At one level we tell a story, a beautiful tale, of a child who was born and lived in Palestine two thousand years ago. At another deeper level, we recognise in that story the God of grace and truth who has come among us to show us the love that moves the sun and the stars.  
I want to end by wishing you all a very happy Christmas – a Christmas I hope when you find yourself like the magi, overwhelmed with joy. I believe passionately that Christmas can be life-changing, and make all the difference to the coming year when we shall have to face who knows what ordeals or challenges. But God knows. And he is with us full of grace and truth, to transform our days and lead us from glory to glory. With all our hearts, we thank him. And we travel on into his future, full of hope.

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Christmas Prayers
We have hoped for light in our darkness, and now it has come. We have heard the good news of a Saviour’s birth and sung with the angels. We have been with the shepherds to the manger to worship the new-born King. We have brought our gifts like the wise men, the offering of our love and our lives. We have seen God’s glory in the face of his incarnate Son, full of grace and truth. 
So let us gather up these great Christmas themes in some moments of prayer.
Eternal God, who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of your one true light: bring us, who have known the revelation of that light on earth, to see the radiance of your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, in your birth you came to a world in need. Look with mercy on peoples that who bear the burden of war and conflict, and bring peace. Watch over all who are hurting or whose hearts are broken, and bring comfort. Be near to those who are suffering in mind, body or emotion, and bring healing. This Christmas night, be the God of all consolation to those who look for tender care and touch them with your everlasting love. We ask this for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
Heavenly Father, in the birth of your Son you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word and shown us the fulness of your love: help us to walk in his light and dwell in his love that we may know the fulness of his joy, who is alve and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Blessing

May Christ who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, fill you with all joy and peace; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you this Christmas time and always. Amen.