This reflection on the readings for the fourth week of advent is written by Hannah Marie Richardson, a first year ordinand on the MPhil pathway at Westcott House.
There’s a lot of marketing at Christmas which sells the ‘fuzzy feeling’ we’re supposed to get this time of year; by buying a certain product or shopping in certain shops we can feel ‘Christmassy’ and thus the festive season will be a success. To create the atmosphere there must be, inter alia, fairy lights, mulled wine, mince pies, cosy blankets, and roaring fires, not to mention questionable pop music and arguments about whether there should be Yorkshire puddings served with Christmas dinner (the answer is, of course, that they should). The familiarity which is pushed onto us is supposed to make us feel secure; we must be happy, content, and we’ll achieve that as long as we buy, say, and do ‘Christmassy’ things.
But this is the polar opposite of Christmas for so many people. No electricity for fairy lights; no money for mince pies; no heating for the bitterly cold nights, and that’s assuming there’s somewhere to sleep at all. The ‘Christmas dream’ only works if you can afford it, and that wealth is certainly not universal. And it goes without saying that none of these luxuries were around in the back streets of Bethlehem a couple of millennia ago.
In the Eucharistic lectionary for Advent IV, the lesson from the Hebrew Bible is from Micah, and it includes the following: “And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:4b-5). But there is no security in being an unmarried mother in a society which would rather stone you than accept they may be wrong about God; there is no security in travelling hundreds of miles on foot while heavily pregnant; there is no security in giving birth in possibly the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. Nor is there any security in being a shepherd tending sheep, or a minority people travelling to lands unknown via the palace of a bloodthirsty monarch, or proclaiming the name of Christ in the face of persecution. Centrally, there is no security in God becoming human.
In the Incarnation, God gives up the security of eternity and infinity by entering time and finitude. Jesus Christ is born and, by virtue of being fully human as well as fully divine, has to die. Of course, there’s a salvific epilogue to this which changes absolutely everything (stay tuned until Easter Sunday to find out more; spoilers ahead), but the ultimate security of the resurrection cannot happen without the ultimate insecurity of death. For Christians, Christmas cannot be about feeling ‘Christmassy’, unless feeling ‘Christmassy’ turns into an acute awareness of the fragility of life, and the awe at a God who would participate in it so fully.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good string of fairy lights or glass of mulled wine, but Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) does suggest there needs to be a bit of reflection:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”.
My favourite fact about this text, the Magnificat, is that it has often ended up on the blacklists of oppressive regimes: for instance, it was banned in India during British colonial rule, and was banned in some South American countries in the 1980s. The thing is, it’s all well and good to talk about God in the abstract, about the events of the past in which we place our faith, but the consequences of those events are still active today; just as active as they were, and as active as they always will be. The radical insecurity of the Incarnation has a real impact, and poses a real threat to the powers that be: God is with the marginalised, God becomes marginalised, at Christmas. God is with us and God is for us.
So what does it mean that “they shall live secure”? Indeed, the Christ-child is the Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), but one look around us and it appears there is no counsel or peace to be seen. Christmas is not a cure-all; the events we celebrate are not magic spells which make everything perfect and remove free will from humanity in the process. There is no security on Earth; our faith is not an insurance policy, for either our souls or (especially) our possessions. It is not a cosy addition to the ‘Christmassy’ feeling; a reassurance, yes, but that is not the end of our faith. The Incarnation is a call to action; God is with us, so where are we? Where is our heart for all of creation, for all people created in the image of God? The entire Christmas story is one of insecurity, from unmarried teenage girl through to the perilous return journey of the Magi. It is only through commitment to living out our faith in the child who lay in the manger all year round that we can get a glimpse at the security offered to us in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Spirit be all blessing, glory, and honour, forever and ever. Amen.
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All Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.