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The Truth of Christmas

Christmas Day, 25 December, 2010
Bishop John Bayton AM, One-time Vicar of St Peter's
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

St Matthew 2 vv 1+2

Deep within the soul of each and every one of us lies the Child of Bethlehem, the Divine spark of innocent life. Saint Paul declares "all flesh" to be "corruptible". On the other hand, for Saint John, it is in the 'flesh' — the humanity of Christ — that the Glory of the Lord is revealed.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes this — "the Son (of God) is the radiance of God's Glory and the icon of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful Word." 'Genesis' tells us that we are made in the "Image and Likeness of God", not just 'image' but 'likeness'. Jesus says,"Unless you accept the Kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it." How then can I, in the midst of a radically adult world, possibly BE that "Little Child" .

Some Christmas Carols have formed our mind about that Child. "But the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" is a good example. Have you ever looked on a new born baby and said, "What is that? Looks like a kangaroo!" Never. All newborn babes have the look of peace upon them even though they come into the world wrinkled, red and bellowing. Freed from the dependence upon what lies within the mother's womb, every child is thrust from the knowledge of everything into the ignorant dependence of recovering what was lost, by the use of the senses. At least that is what Plato taught as 'The Fall of Mankind'. The Judaeo-Christian myth of 'Genesis' puts it differently of course, but essentially every new-born child is a unique creation, longing for the knowledge of all that is good.

In Jewish mythology, at the moment of birth the Guardian Angel points to the new-born child and places her finger between the upper lip and the child's nose and says 'GO'. Each of us carries the imprint of that gentle mark for the rest of our lives in the dimple above the upper lip. Childish? Myth? Of course. But myth is more important than dogma. [by 'myth' I mean, 'That which is essentially true']

Much of our understanding of the Christian myth of the Nativity of Christ is based on ignorance of the culture and architecture of first century Palestine. Jesus was not born in a remote stable because there was no room in an 'Inn'. The Architectural structure of every first century Palestinian house was a three room plan. The Outer room or courtyard was where people lived most of their lives. The Inner room — the katalima (wrongly translated in the King James Bible as 'Inn') — was the sleeping quarters/ 'bed-room'/ 'guest room'. [Remember the parable of Jesus where a friend comes at midnight and asks for a loaf of bread. The man says to him 'I'm sorry but I can't get to the hearth because all my children are asleep'. He could not walk over the sleeping children to reach the 'kitchen'.]

In the Nativity narrative, because of the possible earlier arrival of more important relatives and their place in the katalima, Mary and Joseph were taken into the Hearth (focus), the rock-cut cave; we would call it 'the kitchen', the warmest room in the house, wrongly translated in 1611 as 'stable'; the place where the bread was baked, the place where the odd newborn lamb or kid was safely kept, and there in the place of honor, the inner sanctum of the House [in Hebrew, "House of Bread"; in Arabic, "House of Flesh"], she gave birth.

Perpetuating the notion that "There was no place in the 'inn'" is a dreadful insult to Middle Eastern hospitality.

We have sentimentalized Christmas, we have taken into the myth of the Incarnation many pagan images; we have turned the kenosis (self-emptying) of God into an opportunity for greed, gluttony and extravagance, forgetting that he came, "Not to be served but to serve and to lay down his life for others." The kenosis is the Self-Emptying, the sacrifice of the Word of God. Shortly, the Celebrant of this Eucharist will say, "Pray my brothers and sisters that our sacrifice may be acceptable to Almighty God". We pause to reflect on whether our kenosis, our Sacrifice, is indeed worthy. In other words, 'How do I become like the Self-Emptying God, how do I become a little child? How am I to be the Child of Bethlehem?' Am I, like the baby Jesus, to be utterly dependent upon the love and goodwill of others? Is this what being a child means? In a way, "yes".

But — it is not what we DO that makes us the Child, it is what we ARE by God's Grace. Let us remember who it is that is born Man [there — the Logos, the Eternal Word of God. God Himself]. The words "He came down to earth from heaven" have perpetuated a vertical theology — 'up there, down here', another theological concept which needs revisiting in our contemporary understanding of the immensity of the cosmos.

How do I personally go about engaging with the 'eternal child within'. Jesus said "the kingdom of God is within you." What of childlikeness must I engage? The answer is what the myth of Christmas is all about. I must engage, through prayer and sacrament; through contemplation of the myth of the birth narratives; by the generosity that allows others to minister to me; by acceptance of the holiness of life that comes only from the Father. [Holiness, by the way, is not a human attribute. Holiness belongs to God. We can never aspire to it. Like faith, it is a gift of God.]

The Virgin Mother, the patient Joseph, the Ox of sacrifice and the Ass of Labor; Angels singing "Glory to God in the Highest"; seraph, shepherds, Wise Men from the East, and all the other magical, mythical, mysterious moments, may be summed up in the words of the Hymn —

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today

This is the truth of Christmas.


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