Christmas Day 2020: Beginnings and Endings
(Readings Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-14)
‘In the beginning’ – Those famous words from the opening verses of John’s gospel. And from the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus Christ came to earth, we heard those spine tingling words ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’
Beginnings and endings – they’ve been quite prevalent in our news: Beginning and ending of lockdowns; or how will the post-Brexit trade talks end, or in America, how will the saga of the election end so that there can be a new beginning?
I wonder what beginning and endings you have experienced in your story this year? I’m sure if we shared them there would be beginnings and endings of both delight and pain. And as we look to next year, I’m sure there will be much re-evaluation in our lives. What are the things we want to live differently because of this year – perhaps the start of something or the letting go of something- letting some old things die? I’ve certainly heard many people say that they are glad that this year is coming to an end as they look to the beginning of 2021.
A few weeks ago I was struck by the words of Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, when he said that the commencement of vaccinations against COVID-19 ‘feels like the beginning of the end.’
As I stand here and look to the West End of the Cathedral behind you, I can see that large statue of the 18th century Gloucestershire figure, Edward Jenner, sometimes referred to as ‘the ‘father of immunology’. There were a number of others who had been involved in immunology discovery but it is Jenner who is remembered for developing the vaccination which paved the way for ‘the beginning of the end’ of smallpox – a disease which killed hundreds of millions of people over the years.
Interestingly, the word vaccine comes from the Latin for ‘cow’ because it was the cowpox virus which Jenner used to successfully develop the first ever vaccination (As it happens there is also a cow in this cathedral at present – albeit a knitted one up in the fabulous knitivity crib scene up near the high altar!).
But back to those words of beginning and ending. One of my favorite hymns often sung here at carol services is ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’. It includes the mysterious words from the Book of Revelation which describe God as the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. They are big words for Christmas as we celebrate God coming to earth.
At the opening of John’s gospel, we hear that Christ, The Word (God’s communication with the world) was present at the beginning of time, yet came to earth as Messiah at a particular time and place as foretold by the Old Testament prophets.
And as we retell the story of the holy birth that first Christmas, it is the story of the beginning of the end of tears and pain and death, pointing to the future and glorious eternity when no one need be distanced socially from God or each other, and creation will be restored.
As we peer into the manger to see new birth, we are also invited to encounter the one who came to die.
And perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Bishop Christmas is not a time to talk about death. We’ve had a bucketload of that in the media – endless statistics regarding the number of deaths from COVID-19, and many of us are grieving people who are no longer with us, and we all know how difficult funerals have been over these past months. Let’s keep focused on the Christmas comfort and joy.’
And I want to say this is about Christmas comfort and joy. I believe that Christmas, when we celebrate God coming to earth in human flesh, is also a time to acknowledge our mortality.
The one lying in the manger out of love for us is also the one who one day was laid in a tomb out of love for us. His death through cruel crucifixion seemed so far removed from that Christmas night when the sky was filled with angels singing glory to God and speaking good news to shepherds on a hillside telling them of the birth of a saviour, a rescuer.
Yet three days after his death, when Jesus Christ came back to life, he embodied the overwhelming good news that God’s hope is stronger than despair, and God’s life is stronger than death.
Some of you may be familiar with TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’. The narrator is one of the three visitors from the east remembering the journey to Bethlehem to find the Christ child. The poem ends with these words
‘ …were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’
I wonder if this Christmas, as we move into the new year and the continuous flow of beginnings and endings in our lives, we might have the courage to talk about death as well as birth. Not only the things that need to die in our lives so new things can be born, but also our mortal death and the new life offered us in Christ.
As I look down the aisle at the statue of Edward Jenner, I am indeed celebrating the joyous arrival of life-giving vaccinations against Covid-19, and I’m deeply thankful to God for the skill and dedication of those who have made this possible, yet I also know that mortal death will come one day. I also know the truth of the resurrection. And the Christmas lights and flickering candles bear testimony to the light shining in the darkness and the truth that the darkness will never overcome it.
So, in the here-and-now of the present between birth and death, God is with us – in the pain and the delight reaching out to us in love – and the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in are all around us. Over these past months we have seen stories up and down the country and across the world of people showing love, kindness, care and compassion; People coming alongside the anxious and the fearful and the lonely; People being signs of hope stronger than despair and life stronger than death
Thankyou to all those who contributed to the hampers collected here for members of the breakfast club. Across the diocese people have provided gifts for local refugees and asylum seekers; and on Wednesday we were able to deliver boxes of gifts to Eastwood Park prison. Even today there will be people bringing comfort and joy to those who feel marginalized, worthless or forgotten. These are the signs of the kingdom Jesus Christ revealed as he lived on earth among political turbulence and opposition, showing his followers how to join in and pray for God’s kingdom to ‘come on earth as in heaven’ – to be bringers of hope. Hope stronger than death.
And hope is not the same as wishful thinking or vague optimism. Hope is a tiny vulnerable baby – the Christ-child – lying in an animal feeding trough – The joyous beginning of the end.
So, I wish you a hope-filled Christmas: ‘O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.’
Right Reverend Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester