Last year, in the church in Runcorn where I used to be vicar we had the whole of the local primary school coming into church to go round the Christmas prayer stations we had set out. We’d moved a lot of chairs around and got all sorts of props together in order to make several little scenes to represent different aspects of the Christmas story – Mary being told by the angel that she is to have a baby; Mary and Joseph’s long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the visits of the shepherds and wise men – and the scene in the stable when Jesus has been born, God’s gift to humankind.
We really tried to get the children thinking about the different parts of the story and what it means for us today – and by their answers to what we asked them, and their questions, the children showed not only how much they already knew, but a good deal of thoughtfulness and curiosity and openness.
Let’s remember again that story. And let’s start in a house in Nazareth. With the eyes of your imagination picture that house – as small and dark, but yet cool and pleasant too. A very young woman (Mary betrothed to Joseph) is doing her household chores when suddenly an angel stands before her. What could that possibly have been like? ‘Don’t be afraid’, says the angel to Mary. ‘You have found favour with God’. What sort of person must Mary have been in order to find favour with God we asked the children? ‘Kind, helpful, honest’ came the answers. Serious, said one little boy. The angel tells Mary she is going to have a very special baby, but she is not to be afraid. We all experience times of fear, but those words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ occur again and again in the Bible to remind us that God is with us, that he has plans for us, plans not to harm us, but plans for our well-being and flourishing.
The Christmas story continues with the decree from the Emperor that people have to return to their place of birth in order to be registered. It was a long journey for Joseph and the by now heavily pregnant Mary, all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No cars or railways. On foot over 70 miles; perhaps with Mary riding on a donkey – but that can’t have been very comfortable and with no nice place to stay at the end of it. Poor Mary and Joseph. No room for them at the inn, just some space in a stable. Still, it would have been warm.
And there that same night Mary gave birth to her baby. Jesus Christ has come into the world. Imagine him lying in a manger and how helpless he is, just like any other new-born baby. Yet, amazingly and outrageously that is where God is, coming to us not in power and might, but rather in the tiny and vulnerable form of a new-born baby. The birth of all babies is a source of wonder because a new life has come into the world, but given what the angel had said what must Mary have thought and felt as she gazed at her new son? There’s a song called ‘Mary did you know’ in which one of the lines is ‘Mary did you know that when you kissed your little baby you kissed the face of God’. Did she know? Did she realise?
We can’t know what Mary thought, we can only imagine. Surely though the arrival of the shepherds’ bearing the angels’ message of peace to all humankind, and later the wise men bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh must have given her further food for thought about this very special baby who had come into her life, and Joseph’s too. Let’s not forget Joseph. He had shown himself to be just as obedient to God as Mary after all.
As we too picture that tiny baby in his manger we know that God has come close, come among us, in and through Jesus who lived a normal human life with its joys and sorrows, its achievements and disappointments. So, we worship a God who is not remote from our situation or detached from our everyday lives, but very much part of the things of this earth. And that in turn means that our faith is not to be something super-spiritual, but rather something to be lived out in the ordinary, grounded in the routines of the everyday as we strive to reflect God’s love in the situations in which we find ourselves. God stepped into the world in the person of Jesus (the ‘incarnation’) and because of that we know two things. Firstly, that God understands our lives from the inside because he has lived as one of us and secondly we know just how much he loves the world and everyone in it; that’s you and I.
We asked the children what sort of world they thought Jesus would like the world to be. A peaceful world they said, a world where people are kind to one another; where everyone gets an education and has somewhere to live.
Jesus is God’s gift to mankind. What sort of gift might the children want to give to Jesus we wondered. They had all sorts of ideas and we explored together the idea that the greatest gift any of us can give is ourselves. The words of the carol, ‘In the bleak midwinter sum it up: ‘What can I give him poor as I am, I can give my heart’.
And what did we think Jesus would like us to be like we asked. Just like him one little boy said. He couldn’t possibly have given us a better answer.