Collect for The Feast of the Nativity
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, ever one God, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 52, Vv 7-10
Hebrews 1 Vv 1-14
St John 1, Vv 1-14
We are here again to join together in worship of Almighty God on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, which the Prayer Book most charmingly says is, ‘commonly called Christmass Day’. May I begin by wishing each one of you a holy, happy and truly blessed Christmass.
How many times have we heard the wonderful stories of Christmass? Perhaps, surprisingly, our traditional readings for today did not include an account of the birth in Bethlehem, the heavenly choirs singing Alleluia or the visit by the shepherds. We may read the narratives in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke and hear them in our annual carol services and broadcasts on radio and television. We also get references to these wonderful stories included in our traditional Christmass carols; carols like, ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night,’ ‘Away in a manger’ and ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’. The imagery of Christmass is included in the design of Christmass cards, or, at least, it used to be. I find that I have to make a special effort to find Christmass cards with a religious theme these days. I went into one well-known high street shop and asked where they kept Christmass cards with a Christian theme and the young lady assistant looked at me as if I came from another planet! Yet, despite there being some areas of our life where Christ has most unceremoniously been taken out of Christmass, evidence of a festive season is all around us, perhaps never more so than in the months leading up to the feast. I say months advisedly because my wife and I had occasion to visit a garden centre of a nationally known company, in the east of Scotland, in August, a few years ago, and the staff were decorating Christmass trees! It seems that many seasonal customs and traditions have been retained, even if they are spread over ever longer time scales.
Thus, it could be argued that Christmass is a comfortable time; a time of convention and conformity with and for the things and ways of the past. Christmass is a gentle time – don’t we sing, ‘Gentle Mary laid her child,’ and ‘in whose gentle arms he lay’? However, there is a contrary view that the Feast of the Nativity celebrates one of the most cataclysmic events ever to occur anywhere and at any time in the whole universe. Let us spend a moment or two exploring what may appear to be an extraordinary hypothesis. The universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago as a result, so scientists tell us, of the Big Bang. I need not remind you that this Big Bang was, of course, God’s doing, his first cataclysmic act – it is after all, his creation, his universe. The universe enlarged and developed, through the creation of a multitude of galaxies and, within them, a plenitude of planetary systems. We are part of the population of one small planet within one such system, a planet that had its birth about four and a half billion years ago. Slowly the mass of gas, dust and debris that accumulated to form our world cooled down, and conditions obtained in which primitive forms of life evolved. As Christians it is important to get the idea clearly in our minds that this life, from the earliest and simplest single cells to the most highly developed organisms, was and is the direct result of the work of God’s Holy Spirit. What do I assert and insist upon this? I do so simply because biological scientists, despite their many experiments to simulate primeval conditions, with their chemical soups and electrical discharges, have never been able to create life. True, they have produced amino acids, the so-called building block of life, but they have never created a living organism. One group of micro-biologists had the audacity to report that when they could, with modern molecular manipulative techniques, create an exact copy of a single cell, identical in every way to a living cell, then that cell would have life. I have to tell them that they are wrong and it would not. It might be an identical, molecular clone, but it would be a dead one. It would need the Holy Spirit of God to give it life. We can read the scriptural parallel of this in the Book called Genesis where God made Adam, the first man, from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Without God’s breath Adam had no life. As well as giving life through his Spirit, God can reverse that process. In the Book of Job we may read, ‘If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.’
So, by evolutionary processes, and God’s direct involvement, life began and eventually the human species, Homo sapiens, came into existence. If we take the Biblical view then, as I have suggested, man came about as a direct result of God’s creative activity. Put simply, God made mankind, men and women, in his own image. Whether God did this directly, as a reading of the Book called Genesis indicates, or allowed it to happen through evolutionary processes, is totally unimportant. However, why he did it is important. He did it because he wanted his human creation, to love him and worship him. In a parallel way he wanted to love his creation, and, as Saint John tells us in his first Epistle, ‘we love because he first loved us’. How could God determine that his creatures, men and women, really did love him? He gave the first man, Adam, free will so that he could decide whether or not he would love God and obey him. Then God set him a test, about the eating of a certain fruit that grew in the garden where he lived. Again, scripture tells us that, with his freedom, Adam directly disobeyed God’s orders and ate the famous apple. Up to that point, the creation, that is all that had happened in God’s universe for 15 billion years, had been perfectly ordered, exactly as God had designed it. With Adam’s one thoughtless act of defiance that perfection was shattered – nothing would ever be the same again. Here we have the second cataclysmic act and it was caused by man’s disobedience, what theologians call ‘the fall of Adam’. God was desperate to repair this damage to his creation. Over the centuries that followed he sent numerous prophets to try to bring his people back into a loving relationship with him. The people, in their turn, tried to ingratiate themselves with God with their sacrifices and burnt offerings. We can read all about this in the early books of the Bible. There we can read just how ineffectual this all proved to be. It was a perfect man, Adam, who had broken the covenant with God; it would take the offering back to God of a perfect man to repair that damage. But, all of mankind was tainted with Adam’s sin so there was no perfect human being for such a sacrificial offering. What, we may ask, was God to do? We can almost imagine his thinking. He might have said, ‘You heard my voice from the mountain in the thunderclap; you saw me destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone from heaven; you saw the plagues I sent to obtain your release from captivity in Egypt.’ He might have concluded, in the immortal words of Al Jolson, ‘but you ain’t seen nothing yet!’
What are we to make, then, of this third and most significant cataclysmic event in the history of the universe; third, that is, after the Creation and the Fall. God, whose attributes include omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, sent his only begotten Son into our world as a defenceless baby, to be that perfect man; the man born to die; the man born to be sacrificed to God. He was to be what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer most wonderfully described in the Book of Common Prayer as, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Those Godly properties, omnipotence – all powerful; omniscience – all knowing; and omnipresence – everywhere present, describe a God who is above and beyond anything we humble mortals can imagine. Our puny minds, even those of the cleverest academic and most perceptive philosopher, cannot begin to comprehend the vastness, the wonder, the enormity of the God who created the immensity of the universe. We heard in this morning’s Gospel that, ‘all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made’. Yet this God, whose Son was responsible for the creation of the universe at his Father’s behest, loved us so much that he was prepared to do this most reckless and impossible thing. How could God even begin to consider the sheer outrageousness of his proposal? If he was determined to send his Son, then surely that Son would come to earth on a thunderbolt, surrounded by hosts of protecting angels, to live in a royal palace and dictate to a sinful world exactly what it had to do to return to God’s favour. But, no! The Holy Spirit of God overshadowed (I love the imagery implied by that simple word) overshadowed a young Jewish girl and asked her to be the mother of his Son. In all of history, among all the famous women there had been – Cleopatra, Queen Esther, the Queen of Sheba, to name but a few – God chose an unknown, country-girl for this stupendous responsibility. And, loyal, devoted and obedient to her God, she at once agreed to take on this awesome duty. Mary’s words of agreement with God are said or sung at every Evensong – you will know them as the Magnificat. The apparent strangeness, strangeness certainly to us, of God’s decision continued. Jesus was not born into a royal palace but was laid in a manger full of straw in a cave full of stinking cattle. He was not born in the capital city of Judea, in Jerusalem, the place of God’s Temple, the place where it was thought that God dwelt in his earthly presence, but in nearby, yet insignificant, Bethlehem. Jesus was not born in the middle of the day, he came into this world at midnight, or so it is believed, into the stygian darkness, probably illuminated by a candle or rush-light. At a very early age he became a political refugee and was taken by his parents into Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. As a child and young man he lived in far away and unimportant Nazareth. You will remember the words of Nathaniel, given us by Saint John, ‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’
These circumstances, however, were those dictated by God for the birth of his Son, his beloved, his only-begotten. This wonderful event, an event that eclipses every other event in the history of the universe, happened about two thousand years ago. No one is sure of the exact year and it is of no consequence. God could wait no longer to save his chosen people from their sinful and Godless lives. He sent Jesus, called the Christ, to preach redemption and to promote a kingdom of God on earth. However, contrary to their interpretations of the prophets, Jesus proved not to be the sort of Messiah that the Jewish religious leaders had expected. He was not a latter-day King David, a warrior who, astride a caparisoned charger, would lead a mighty army and drive the Roman overlords from their land and usher in a new reign of peace and prosperity. Their disappointment and disbelief would lead them, some thirty years later, to bay for his death before Procurator Pontius Pilate, the local leader of their hated Roman masters. But those are events that we must wait to commemorate, although surprisingly soon: Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent is only six weeks away. The termination of Jesus’ earthly life in his crucifixion would prove to be the fourth cataclysmic event in history, but more of that another time.
So, we come together this morning in this tiny church on Mull to join with Christians from around the world to praise and thank God that he did initiate that tumultuous and turbulent event, the birth of his Son to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and not only with all Christians but with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, as we shall hear confirmed later in this service. Saint John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Our faith teaches us this simple truth. We know that we have eternal life, life in this world and life that continues beyond the grave, because, and only because, of the birth of that baby in long-ago, far-away Palestine. Let us thank God again for thinking the un-thinkable and doing the un-doable, thereby offering us eternal salvation through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ.