Reading(s): Luke 3: 7-18. This sermon was given by Canon John Reynolds at St Mark's.
It was November 1993. Everyone's thoughts had turned to preparation for Christmas and excitement and anticipation was in the air. That was in England but in Israel it wasn't the only thing in the air. the Palestinians were protesting against the government and violence was in the air. But I, together with ten others, had signed up to visit the Holy Land, in my case for the first time, so that when we arrived in Bethlehem there was tension. Because of the intifada there were few visitors where normally they would have been thousands.
I had longed for this moment and now here it was, the Church of the Holy Nativity, the place where Jesus was born. The few of us went through the entrance, the very small doorway causing us to bow low symbolically expressing humility. The church has great atmosphere as we make our way to the place, a kind of grotto which was once a cave. I should say that there is a whole network of caves in Bethlehem many of them inhabited. But this particular place, where 1600 years before, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, had asked to see where Jesus was born. It was a temple dedicated to the Roman God Adonis. Helena, who had been converted to Christianity for some time, immediately ordered the temple to be destroyed and a church built over the site. It was then that they discovered it had been a place of Christian pilgrimage since the earliest years.
Now we were here. To our left was a Manger. To our right an Altar and on the floor under the Altar was a thirteen point silver star denoting the place of the birth of the Lord Christ. I could do none other but soak in the atmosphere. Our party moved on but I felt compelled to return. I knelt near the star and kissed the floor for this was the place where ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ and where it was said ‘We beheld his glory, the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father. Full of Grace and Truth.’ Words of Saint John’s Gospel.
In this morning’s Gospel, as you will have realised, it speaks of the excitement and anticipation as people looked forward to a Deliverer from Heaven. John the Baptist points away from himself to Jesus of Nazareth who would indeed be a Deliverer not only for the Jews but the whole of humanity.
As we stand on the brink of the Great Festival today, for many the excitement and anticipation has been somewhat diluted under the shadow of Covid. Yes, people are preparing but I suspect for a more subdued commemoration of the coming of Christ into the world. But nothing should take away the glory and joy of the Festival. Nor should it ever, even if we were to sit down to beans on toast for lunch. I don't expect the Holy Family had much of a party or rich food on that first Christmas. But nothing could take away from the event itself. The greatest event in human history for the child was ‘here God made one of us. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth’ as the Carol has it. ‘And the angels sang. Glory to the new-born king’.
In Ampfield you will be having a Midnight Eucharist I understand. It may not be Bethlehem but your Altar in a way can become another Manger as Bread and Wine become the very Life of Christ. And as you lift up your hands to receive him you are invited, (as indeed you are this morning), to receive the Lord of your lives - Christ, as it were, born again in your hearts.
This will be the true glory of Christmas 2021 and all the rest is simply an expression of joy for God’s great Christmas present to us, Jesus our Lord.