Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2017
The only time I have spent Christmas Day out of Australia was eleven years’ ago, when I was living in Switzerland. I went to Paris for Christmas, to stay with some Australian friends living and working there, and for the first time in my life I didn’t go to church on Christmas Day. There were two reasons for that: my French is almost non-existent and I wouldn’t have caught more than one in twenty words of a French service; and the English-speaking church that my friends attended, the Church of Scotland in Paris, didn’t have a Christmas Day service.
That shouldn’t have surprised me. The Scots have always had a slightly awkward relationship with the celebration of Christmas. After the Reformation, Protestants realised that a lot of Christmas celebrations weren’t biblically based. If Christians were to go back to the Scriptures as the Reformation demanded of them, and only celebrate those feasts and people who were mentioned in the Bible, then a lot of holy days or holidays, would have to go. Edward the Sixth of England was very canny about this. Saints’ Days couldn’t be celebrated anymore, but the apostles could be remembered, and so could biblically-attested events. So the newly Reformed Church could still celebrate Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day (Stephen being the first Christian martyr whose story is told in the Book of Acts), Holy Innocents’ Day (remembering the little boys killed by King Herod), the Circumcision of Jesus, and Epiphany, when the magi arrived with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And, lo and behold, when you added all that up, you got something not very far from the traditional twelve days of Christmas celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Hooray! The party was back on!
But that was the English, a soft, southern race who didn’t take their religion as seriously as the dour Scots did. In 1561 the newly reformed Scottish Kirk declared all of Christmas to be a ‘popish’ invention and banned it. Scotland had laws against carol singing, playing football, making music and dancing. The ban was temporarily removed between 1660 and 1690, but then it was reinstated until – when do you think Christmas became a public holiday in Scotland? – 1958!
Australia, land of so many immigrants, celebrates Christmas in a variety of ways, including with a public holiday. But I think we should particularly remember the way Christmas Day was celebrated on board Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, in 1769, according to the journal of Joseph Banks: ‘Christmas day: Our Goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion’. The traditional Australian Christmas Day is apparently older than modern Australia.
So, the church has had mixed feelings about the celebration of Christmas for a long time. It didn’t begin to celebrate Christmas until the third century and, as we’ve seen in Scotland, it sometimes tried to go back on its permission for that celebration. The church’s usual concern was less about the lack of biblical warrant for Christmas, and more about what people celebrating Christmas got up to, things like eating goose pie and getting drunk. In the eighth century the English bishop Boniface wrote to Pope Zacharias complaining about the behaviour of Roman Christians while celebrating Christmas and the Pope could only sigh and say it was difficult to get them to stop celebrating Christmas like a winter solstice festival, but he would try. So when I occasionally mutter and get grumpy about Christmas songs that make no mention of Jesus and people who do anything on their Christmas public holiday except go to church, as I confessed to you a few weeks ago that I do, I am following in a very long line of grumpy church leaders.
But there’s simply no point in being grumpy about the ways in which people celebrate Christmas. History tells us that trying to ban Christmas celebrations has always failed; even in Scotland the reason we know about the attempts to ban singing, dancing and playing football at Christmas is because of the many laws against them, and people don’t make laws about things that aren’t happening.
There’s also a good theological reason for churches to accept secular celebrations of Christmas, even those that include football. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus. At Christmas we celebrate that nothing human is alien to God, not singing, not dancing, not playing football, and not even enjoying goose pie and alcohol on board the good ship Endeavour. At Christmas God became one of us, and so in each one of us, every human being, we see God. Because of the Incarnation, humanity’s story of birth and growth and life and death has also become God’s story. Emmanuel; God is with us; one of us; among us.
I want to read you two Australian poems that remind us of that. One was written by a wealthy white man, born in Toorak, educated at Geelong Grammar and Cambridge, described in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as having a ‘refined accent and encyclopedic knowledge of arcane matters such as eighteenth-century English opera’. The other was written by an indigenous woman, born on her mother’s Kungulu country in Queensland, who left school at 13, then later studied at the University of Queensland, and who became an activist and founding member of many indigenous organizations. Both John Manifold and Maureen Watson’s poems remind us that the Christmas story is about God becoming human and taking on everything that being human involves.
J.S. MANIFOLD – Nativity
So many times the painters have enscrolled
The scene! The lowly stable thronged with Kings;
Melchior, Gaspar, Balthazar, each brings
His gift of myrrh or frankincense or gold;
The shepherds, having left their flocks in fold,
Gape in amazement at such wondrous things,
And ‘Peace on Earth’ a choir of angels sings.
It’s all familiar, changeless, known of old.
Acknowledgment is owing, all the same,
To those profane assistants, out of sight,
Who give the picture its protective frame:
Partisan outposts up the desert track
Who curse the Star for showing too much light
Yet by their vigilance hold Herod back.
I chose this poem because I’ve been to Bethlehem, seen the enormous, illegal, Separation Wall that surrounds it, and know that Jesus’ birthplace is no more a place of peace now than it was then. Jesus was born into a place and time of war and danger, and in all those living in danger we see his face.
Maureen Watson (Aunty Maureen) – Memo to J.C.
When you were down here JC and walked this earth,
You were a pretty decent sort of bloke,
Although you never owned nothing, but the clothes on your back
And you were always walking round, broke.
But you could talk to people, and you didn’t have to judge,
You didn’t mind helping the down and out
But these fellows preaching now in your Holy name,
Just what are they on about?
Didn’t you tell these fellows to do other things,
Besides all that preaching and praying?
Well, listen, JC, there’s things ought to be said,
And I might as well get on with the saying.
Didn’t you tell them ‘don’t judge your fellow man’
And ‘love ye one another’
And ‘not put your faith in worldly goods’.
Well, you should see the goods that they got, brother!
They got great big buildings and works of art,
And millions of dollars in real estate,
They got no time to care about human beings,
They forgot what you told ‘em, mate;
Things like, ‘Whatever ye do to the least of my brothers,
this ye do also unto me’.
Yeah, well these people who are using your good name,
They’re abusing it, JC,
But there’s people still living the way you lived,
And still copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate,
Getting crucified by the fat cats, too,
But they don’t call us religious, mate.
Tho’ we got the same basic values that you lived by,
Sharin’ and carin’ about each other,
And the bread and the wine that you passed around,
Well, we’re still doing that, brother.
Yeah, we share our food and drink and shelter,
Our grief, our happiness, our hopes and plans,
But they don’t call us ‘Followers of Jesus’,
They call us black fellas, man. ·
But if you’re still offering your hand in forgiveness
To the one who’s done wrong, and is sorry,
I reckon we’ll meet up later on,
And I got no cause to worry.
Just don’t seem right somehow that all the good you did,
That people preach, not practice, what you said,
I wonder, if it all died with you, that day on the cross,
And if it just never got raised from the dead.
This is the person whose birth we celebrate today; JC, ‘a pretty decent sort of bloke’, whose face we see in every human face, but especially those ‘copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate’. Let’s remember that today. And feel free to sing carols, dance and play football. Amen.