Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Eve, 2021
Tonight we celebrate the second Christmas Eve of the covid19 pandemic. On Christmas Day last year I looked back on 2020 and said that for many people throughout the world it had been and remained a year of darkness. But I felt certain then, even if I did not dare say so out loud, that 2021 would be better. I am apparently a slow learner. When the churches first closed in 2020 I thought, “Oh well, we might not be able to celebrate Easter together in person, but it will all be over by Pentecost”. Through lockdowns three, four and five I thought, “Oh well, at least we Melburnians now know how to get to 0 cases of community transmission – short, sharp lockdowns”. Then, when Delta proved intractable and lockdown six went on for months, I thought, “Oh well, once we’ve all been vaccinated we’ll be fine”. Now Omicron has happened and finally, after almost two years, I know not to make any predictions at all. I have not only no idea what 2022 will bring, I have no idea what will happen tomorrow. But, really, that has always been true. We may think we live in a stable, predictable, world, but at every moment the unexpected can shatter it.
I am certain that whatever Mary expected when the time came for her to give birth, she had not expected to be far from home. I suspect that she had expected to be able to give birth in the same way her kinswoman Elizabeth had, in her own house with neighbours and relatives standing by ready to have an opinion on her baby’s name. But Augustus had decided that he wanted to count the population of the Roman Empire, and Joseph and Mary found themselves having to travel at the worst possible time. Not only that, when they got to their destination so many other people had done the same that there was no room for them in the small city, and Mary had to lay her firstborn son in a manger, rather than finding a place for him in the inn. Like so many people during this pandemic, the decisions of their government meant that they were cut off from their home, trying to find accommodation amid crowds all seeking the same thing.
I am also absolutely certain that Mary had not expected that the first people to visit her and her son would be a group of shepherds who had been told to come by ‘a multitude of the heavenly host’. These shepherds were apparently not being counted by Governor Quirinius for the census. They were still out in the fields, watching over the sheep. Seemingly no one needed to know their numbers or ancestry. And yet it was to them that the first announcement of Jesus’ birth was made: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ Whom God favours turns out not to be the Emperor, the Governor, or anyone with rank or position, but those outside the city, considered not even to be worth counting.
Mary could have expected little of what happened to her when Jesus was born, and I suspect that she expected equally little of what happened during his life and afterwards. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be presented to the Lord the aged Simeon told her, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Mary was warned, but could she have foreseen the horrors of the crucifixion or the strange joy of the resurrection? Could she have expected the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, the believers, and ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers’? Could she have imagined that two thousand years’ later, in a country on the other side of the world, we would remember her name?
The covid19 pandemic has taught most of us, if we needed the reminder, that life is fragile and precious, and that all our plans and hopes can be easily overturned by the unexpected. We might have thought ourselves safe and secure, able to work, to travel, to spend time with those we love, but after the last two years we know that all these things can be taken from us in a moment. We middle-class Australians are now, in fact, in the position of most of the world, who have always lived only a few steps from disaster. Yet even as we have been reminded again of our vulnerability and fragility, even as we have walked through a land of deep darkness, on us the light has shined. The message of the angel to the shepherds is ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’. If we have discovered during covid19 that we are not immune from danger and pain, we also know that we are part of ‘all the people’ for whom the birth of the Messiah is good news.
To us, here and now, as to the shepherds, comes the message, ‘All glory be to God on high, and to the world be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease.’ To us, as to Mary and Joseph, the Christ-child brings hope, joy, and love. At the end of that most unexpected night Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’. Let us, too, ponder this good news in our hearts. We have heard the great glad tidings told by the Christmas angels; let us invite Emmanuel to come to us and abide with us. The God who once came to Bethlehem to dwell with humanity will also dwell in us if only we make him welcome. Let us glorify and praise God. Amen.