Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Eve 2022
The first Christmas to be celebrated in Australia was in 1769, onboard Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour. 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 older than modern Australia.
I love this story, of drunken sailors, because it reminds us that Christmas is not really the sparkly, sanitised, celebration we see on Christmas cards and in television advertisements. The first Christmas would certainly not have been like that. Birth never is; it is sweaty and messy and bloody. Whether Mary gave birth in her own home, as the Gospel according to Matthew suggests, or in a city in which ‘there was no place for them in the inn’ as Luke tells us, it would have been very unlike the placid event suggested by most Nativity scenes.
This is before we get to the second part of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, which brings in the shepherds. The carols we sing remind us that the Messiah, the anointed one, the one of whom the church believes Isaiah was speaking when he described him as ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,’ was born ‘with the poor, despised and lowly,’ and in the story we hear today Luke tells us that the first people to pay homage to Jesus were poor, shepherds, often despised by others because of their smelly and isolated occupation. There’s a reason that the sound associated with them in the story we just told together was ‘Phwoar’. At best the shepherds who visit Jesus are ordinary people, not the sort of people able to give a newborn baby fabulous gifts. But in Luke’s version, it is to them that a multitude of the heavenly host appears.
(It is because Luke describes the poor and despised as the first to greet the Messiah that I think Jesus would have been perfectly happy with the ordinary hands on the Endeavour getting drunk to celebrate his birthday.)
It is important for us to listen to this story and sing these carols in a world that worships power and privilege. It would have been just as important for the first Christians, those for whom Luke was writing, to hear this story of ordinariness because it links Jesus’ birth with his death on the cross. The baby wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a manger, because there was no place for him in Bethlehem’s inn, became the man crucified outside the city walls because there was no place for him in Jerusalem. The baby whose first visitors were humble shepherds became the man who entered Jerusalem on a donkey and redeemed Israel through a humiliating death rather than a military victory. In the story of Jesus’ birth, his death is foreshadowed, and we are given hints of the sort of Messiah he will grow up to be.
Today we celebrate the birth of a baby, but we also celebrate the man that baby becomes. The baby about whom we sing carols became a man who brought good news to the poor; proclaimed release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; and freedom to the oppressed. The baby whose birth we remember two thousand years later became a man who told his followers: when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink, when I was a stranger, you welcomed me, when I was naked, you gave me clothing, when I was sick, you took care of me, when I was in prison, you visited me – because just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. The baby whose birth we celebrate today became a man who showed us how very much God loves us, who told his followers that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and then demonstrated that love on the cross.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus not just because it is a beautiful story, and not just because the birth of a baby is always to be celebrated as a gift from God. We celebrate the birth of Jesus because in this story of an ordinary birth among ordinary people we see the revelation of God. While Jews find the revelation of God in the Torah and Muslims find it in the Koran, Christians believe God revealed Godself not primarily in the Bible, but in the baby whose birth we celebrate today. Christmas tells us that God loves us so passionately that God became human, and so today we sing songs of joy. As we sing we also remember the lessons this baby grew up to teach us: to love God, our neighbours, and our enemies; to care for the poorest in society; to welcome those society most excludes. As we follow his example we, like the shepherds, are among the people to whom the angels sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!’ Amen.