Christmas Eve 2019: The Father is Born
Somewhere at home you have probably got your Birth Certificate. It might be buried in a drawer, kept safe, or it might be lost in the mists of time! Someone else might even have it. In any event, everyone has a birth certificate issued when their birth is registered with the state in the days after their birth. This has been going on in the UK since 1 July 1837, although it did not become compulsory until 1875, following an Act of Parliament in 1874, which made registration of a births the responsibility of those who were present at the birth. Before the advent of birth certificates, the only kind of record that we might find would be a record of a child’s baptism in a parish church, usually a few days after birth.
Although the desire to know and record who has been born, and who exists, can be traced back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia, it was not until the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulated that a child should be registered at birth that every child has had a basic human right to a name and nationality. Up to a quarter of children born worldwide do not have a birth certificate though, for cultural, geographical, political or practical reasons.
Jesus did not have a Birth Certificate. Just imagine if he had and what would have been written on it!
Name: Jesus bar Joseph
Father: God the creator of all things seen and unseen.
Mother: Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anna
Parents’ address: Nazareth, Galilee
Place of Birth: Bethlehem, City of David
Date of Birth: 25/12/0001
Registered by: Joseph
No such a document has ever been found for Jesus, nor anyone else at that time. Nor would it ever be, nor does it need to be. The record of Jesus’ birth is found in the opening of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, and Luke begins his gospel a chapter earlier with the statement that he is intending to “set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses”. Luke’s intention is to make a proper record of events that began with the conception of Jesus. Matthew does a similar thing by beginning his gospel with Jesus’ family tree: (Matthew 1:1-17). Both writers locate Jesus’ birth in time and place, recording for future reference – they effectively give him a birth certificate. Luke’s record-keeping also tells us that it was the Emperor Augustus’ attempt to update population records that brought the holy family to Bethlehem in the first place. So he was born in the right place at the right time to be noticed, then and now: Luke and Matthew have made sure of this. And Jesus does have a birth certificate after all: a record of his arrival in the world found in the most published, widely-read, controversial international historic bestseller in the universe.
Subsequent generations have been retelling and recasting the story ever since. The famous and popular hymn with which we began this service – the archetypal Christmas opener – ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was written by Frances Alexander not simply to tell the Christmas story, but to give comfort to parents who had lost their children. When she wrote it there was a very high rate of infant mortality. In 1847, the year before she wrote ‘Once in royal’, she published ‘The Lord of the forest and his Vassals’: a story dedicated ‘to her little cousins to help them become ‘little Christians’. In that story she writes of “A shorter grave at their feet where the white robed children often come, to dress the turf with flowers, and talk, with tears and smiles, of the happy little children”. It reminds us of some of the lines from ‘Once in Royal’, which resonate powerfully with this vision of deceased children visiting the graves of their friends:
for he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
we shall see Him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars His children crowned
all in white shall wait around.
Christmas is a difficult time for anyone grieving, and especially hard for any who have lost children. But her purpose was not to make folk sad, but to give them hope. For hope is what Christmas is all about. Hope for the future and hope of heaven. We need hope for the future of our nation, and we need hope of eternal life for ourselves and our loved ones. These are the presents that Christmas delivers here and now. For if the birth of Jesus means anything to us it is that the Babe of Bethlehem is the light of the world and the hope of the world. If you are not a Christian, I don’t know where your hope comes from. But if you are, you will share with me, that underpinning, all pervasive, positive dimension of spirituality that helps us face anything, no matter how tough, depressing or soul-destroying, with a face turned towards the living hope of light and faith that we find in the face of the Christchild turned towards us in love.
It doesn’t make it easy – but it does make it possible. And it gives a framework for truly celebrating the gifts of God, and handling the sin of the world as it wields knives or fires guns on the streets of Enfield, continues to blow up chunks of the middle east, or gives us world leaders who inspire fear and loathing rather than hope and trust.
And this Jesus in whom we do hope and trust, he arrives as a baby. Babies are interesting creatures aren’t they? They inspire unconditional love, and they give unconditional love. In innocence they naturally open their arms to embrace and the human instinct is to give them a cuddle. It is both biological and spiritual. A small being, arrived as it were from nowhere - a miracle of biology – each one a gift and a blessing. But also fragile, vulnerable, corruptible, a tabula rasa – a blank canvas on which the world paints its pictures of pain and etches symbols of sin. The Christchild is the same but different – a baby human - but whose divinity shines through a face that could quite justifiably be very sad indeed. This is the face that is turned to our world, knowing both tears and smiles, accompanied by the open arms of an unconditional loving embrace.
It doesn’t change. It doesn’t change. The world doesn’t change, and Jesus doesn’t change. Every year the Christchild is born anew into a world that is different, but which hasn’t changed. Different problems, different issues, different people, but the same darkness, trouble and strife. Yet Jesus comes to bring change – to bring light and hope, and change. Our world can be changed – it has been changed by the arrival of this open-armed, smiling faced, unconditionally loving God who in the form of a little baby, wipes away the tears of grief and the pain of sin, smiles at us and embraces us as his children. For this child of grace, is also the dear Lord and Father of mankind.
And that is why we embrace his loving salvation, and it is why we worship him as both Son, and Father, and welcome him into our hearts as Holy Spirit of Peace and Goodwill, who brings us all a truly happy, Christmas!
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/12/19