“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(Luke 2: 1-14)
Last Saturday evening, our 22 year-old daughter, Lizzie, suggested we watch the film Love Actually. If you want an excellent feel-good factor film to watch during this Christmas holiday, I would recommend this classic Christmas film from 2003. It tells several stories about the trials and challenges of relationships and love, cutting from one to the other throughout the film.
My favourite story is the one about Sarah, who has worked in a design studio in London for “two years, seven months, three days and two hours…” And for “…two years, seven months, three days and one hour, thirty minutes, she has been madly, but secretly, in love with another employee, Karl.
Each time we meet Sarah, her mobile phone is always ringing. Then, at the works Christmas party Sarah and Karl get talking, he invites her to dance and he offers to walk her home. They go inside and after two years, seven months, one day and a few minutes They get together and are about to share a kiss…when…Sarah’s mobile phone rings. She answers it immediately. We find out that it is Sarah’s brother, Michael, who suffers from mental health problems. He tells Sarah, that he is scared and needs to see his sister. Sarah looks at Karl; Karl looks at Sarah. She says to Michael, “Yes, of course, I’m not busy. I’ll come right away.”
The next shot sees heavy locks being opened and Michael being wheeled out to meet Sarah in a hospital. She takes out a scarf and wraps it round her brother’s neck and, with tears running down their cheeks, Sarah wishes her brother a Happy Christmas. For Sarah, the “love, actually” is less about Karl and more about the love she has for her brother: self-sacrificing, love, which she gives, whether, or not, it is returned. And that is the message of Christmas. On this Christmas night, let us pay attention to another story, of love, actually.
Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife all the way to his hometown of Bethlehem from Nazareth (86 miles – a week’s journey) for the sake of a census. Not a single relative with a spare room remains. In fact, there is no accommodation to be found. The birth is immanent; a borrowed animal shed will have to do.
Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy (remember, he is not the father) - which nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end - have been hard. Mary could have been stoned to death for suspected adultery and Joseph would have had to live in shame and humiliation. It was a big risk.
Nor is life perfect for Mary. The unease of unexpected pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labour. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians - dodgy characters – who spend their working days living rough on the hillsides, not really approved of by polite society – they approach - caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy. For they have seen God made human in their real world.
Christmas in the barn is a crazy scene; it is chaotic and messy. The circle around the manger is made up of people with issues and problems. But that is the point! Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets amidst the straw and the stink of animal shit. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect, anxious and fragile people. People with issues, anxieties and problems – people like you and me.
The gospel makes clear that at the manger love is found for imperfect people. Real people. God is Love. Unconditional, no-strings-attached, Love. Jesus, the Christ - who is God in human shape shows us what real love looks like – a defenceless, dependable baby with outstretched arms born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough, whose love invites us to come as we are; with all our imperfections and frailties; with all our needs, our hopes and our longings…
Tonight, we can gather around the manger with honesty; with no need to pretend. Here every-day people; anxious people; broken people; challenged people - real people - find acceptance. This Christmas time, let us rejoice that God is among us, and within us, and around us, encountering, nudging, loving, and transforming us; accepting and healing us. For…
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release those imprisoned by injustice and poverty,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace to others,
And to make music and song in the heart of the world.
Have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful new year. And may the light of God’s love burn within you, and may you shine, in the darkness of this world, to make God’s love real. Amen.