window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date()); gtag('config', 'G-JP8PD7NQMN'); Vicar’s sermon. Carol service 21.12.23 | St Mary's Barnard Castle

Vicar’s sermon. Carol service 21.12.23

It’s Christmas in Australia. I know this because ‘Neighbours’ has returned to essential viewing in the Vicarage, albeit on Amazon Prime (FreeVee) rather than on Channel 5. It has gone up in the world: more money is being spent on it (clearly) and it is no longer classed as an Australian ‘soap’ – it is now described as ‘international drama’. Paul Robinson has already appeared as Santa. Chloe featured as an Elf in candy cane stockings and the ‘younger cast members’ are busy creating alcoholic punch that could take the lining off your stomach to accompany their BarBQ party by the pool. Christmas in the summer hemisphere.
It must be strange to celebrate Christmas in the heat of the summer. Some of you will have done so, visiting friends or family ‘down under’. All the trimmings of Northern European sleighbells and snow thrown in with long summer evenings and beach parties. But here in the North we know and celebrate Christmas best! Christmas for us is ‘In the bleak mid winter’, snow is on the ground, Good King Wenceslas is heading for St Agnes’ fountain with his trusty page laden with ‘flesh and wine’, bells are ringing, angels are singing about peace on earth, gentlemen are merry and ‘all is calm, all is bright’.
There are layer upon layers of Christmases here. For us, Christmas is celebrated more in song than in prose, more in poetry than in bare text – perhaps that’s our Anglo Saxon or Norse heritage asserting itself. We want poetry to fill in the gaps of the story for us, to set the imagination free and lead us to a different sort of truth than that offered by the historians and textual analysts.
For does it really matter that we don’t know whether it was winter or not when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem? Does it really matter that Quirinius’ census doesn’t square with the rest of the historical details Luke offers us (despite his best efforts) or that the ‘star in the east’ might be more an echo of an Old Testament prophesy than an astrological event – though it seems astrologists can actually find a conjunction of stars near the date of Jesus’ birth? No, it doesn’t matter a jot, because the birth of this individual gets under our skin and creates a new world in our imagination, our hearts and minds.
What is this new world like? It is a world that recognises the small, the hidden and uncelebrated. A young girl who says ‘yes’ to the call of God. An older man, working hard, doing his best to lead a half decent life who attempts to offer her protection but (in our telling) can’t even find her a place to give birth to her Son. In our imaginations Jesus is born in the stable: we place him there though, the scriptures themselves don’t. We prefer to follow St Francis’ insights and so replace a first century home in Israel (people and animals all in one room with manger to hand) with a North European farmyard building. The result is that he ends up in a manger but the point is that Jesus is not born in the guest room, someone more important than he was presumably granted this honour in the crowded city. Does it matter? Not really. Even in his birth we see humility and vulnerability….he will call it blessed ‘meekness’. He is both an outsider, but also with us in the mix of the ordinary.
And then the guests arrive: the ‘great unwashed’ in the form of the shepherds, returning home after seeing the child & waking people up with their noise and excitement. And they are followed by the VIP visitors who we dress in silk and perfume with the scents of the East: camels and sherbert, rose and silver, ‘a cold coming’ and questions of meaning and purpose offered alongside extravagant gifts.
They are there – all the characters of the story – and then they are gone. The angels return to heaven, the shepherds head back to their sheep, the magi (so much more mysterious than Kings or wise men) journey home by another way and very soon even Joseph will fade from the picture.
Who is left? Mary, who treasures these things in her heart and encourages us to do so too and the child in the manger who Christians believe unites things heavenly and earthly and whose presence reassures us that even in the darkest of times, the coldest of winters, the most unpromising of situations God is with us. That Gospel message has been enough to bring comfort, hope and joy to those who hear it ever since BC became AD and may you know God’s blessing with you this Christmas time and always. Amen.

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