The Two Kingdoms
Fr David’s Sermon Midnight Mass, Christmas 2015
“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)
The Gospel we have just heard is about two kingdoms. There is the kingdom of Cesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor who calls a census of the entire world. He is anxious to consolidate his reign politically and financially and to extend his effective control of what was considered the whole world of the time. By any way of thinking the expansion of the Roman Empire was a remarkable achievement rarely replicated in later history. It brought a unified cultural and political reality into being. Cesar Augustus’ authority was so far reaching that he was thought of as a God.
Alongside this vast kingdom which seeks consolidation another king appears: the infant who is to be found in a manger. Jesus is born outside the circle of power and authority. The stable itself would have been outside the city. Jesus is born an outsider from the very start. He is born not in the opulent dignity of the socially privileged, or even in the comfort of an ordinary family, but into a place not even designated for human habitation. He is laid to rest not on a throne, not even in the somewhat elegant mangers of the cribs to be seen on our Christmas cards or in our churches, but in the roughness of a feeding trough for animals.
In Saint Luke’s short account of the birth of Jesus this manger is mentioned three times. We are told that Mary laid her infant in the manger. The shepherds are told that it is a manger which will be for them the key to identifying new born saviour. And it is when they reach the unlikely scene of a new-born in a manger that they recognise in this the person of the saviour, the Messiah and Lord.
The manger – the feeding trough – is a sign. Not just for those mentioned in the Gospel narrative but also for us. When we look at the manger this evening what is it pointing to in today’s world? The manger is first of all a reminder that if we want to understand who God is, then we have to look first of all at the humility of Jesus’ birth. The God of power and might appears in our midst –in human shape – but not with the VIP accessories and status we normally associate with presidents and monarchs. God appears in our midst as vulnerable, sidelined, unimportant. When we recognise that Jesus is born as an outsider, then we realise that God must be different to what we expected.
Christmas is a Feast of humility. Christmas teaches us that humility is the basic channel through which God chooses to reveal to us who God is. God is LOVE. Not a guy in the sky waiting to zap us if we wind him up! God is pure, selfless, unconditional LOVE. Jesus is God in human shape. Jesus is born in humility; Jesus (which means: “the one who saves”) lives in humility, he gets on his hands and knees to wash the feet of his disciples in humility and service; Jesus finally humbles himself even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus reveals how God is love.
The birth we celebrate this day calls us each to renew humility in our lives. We live in a dark and dangerous world. A world where there exist those who would turn the humility and gentleness of the Christ child into a corrupt and violent expression of religion and government, defacing and disfiguring the great world religions of Christianity and Islam; ruling and judging people by terror and violence. We still live in a world of two kingdoms. But because of a baby in a manger, on this Christmas night, we are being shown a new way: the power of humility.
Two days ago a bus was attacked in Kenya: all were ordered off by the gunmen. Quickly, Muslims gave Christians distinctive headscarves to protect their identity and save their lives.
Two weeks ago, that allusive and mysterious street artist, Banksy left one of his graffiti works under a bridge in Calais under which Syrian refugees have been sheltering. It showed the late Steve Jobs as a refugee carrying his possession in a bin bag slung over his shoulder and carrying the first kind of Apple computer invented by him.
Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian refugee; had he not been allowed to settle in the USA, the Apple i-technology revolution would never have happened. Banksy, whose true identity has never been revealed, donated the whole of the proceeds from sale of his recent works to building wooden accommodation units for refugees in Calais. He left the artwork under the bridge during the night after he had been helping to build the wooden shelters.
Humility is the key to everyday Christian solidarity. Humility is a different road to that of the haughtiness of the corrupt which has led to so much hardship in our world. Humility is a different road to that of the arrogance which has given rise to a horrible cycle of criminal violence which tarnishes our cities. Humility is a different road to that of the indifference and lack of caring which leads to hopelessness.
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea/ With a glory in his bosom, which transfigures you and me./ As he died to make us holy let us die to make all free… Glory, glory Halleluja!
Having seen the Christ (the chosen one of God), as a baby in a manger, there is hope for us all. No matter how dark and violent this world may be at times – we know that because of the birth of Jesus; God made flesh and blood for you and me – there will always be hope in the rough mangers of our hearts; there will always be love to give; the light will always shine in the darkness:
We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell: O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.