A recent survey revealed that one in three children had no idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Other religious blank spots included the role of the Archangel Gabriel, with more than a quarter having no idea that Gabriel brought God's message to Mary at her home in Nazareth to say that she would give birth to a son.
As Moderator I rarely get the opportunity to interact with children as I did when I was in pastoral charge. But I was reminded of an opportunity last year when I put my ‘teaching skills’ to the test. I asked a group of Under 7s some questions about the Christmas story and got some very interesting answers:
Who is Jesus? Jesus was a king and he wore a crown even though he was a baby. It was a really small crown.
Where was Jesus born? He was born in a stable a long way away from here in another country. Bethlehem - it's in England. There were sheep, horses and a crocodile outside the stable.
What gifts did the wise men bring? The three wise men brought Jesus presents of gold, frankincense and murr. But I think he would have liked some Lego.
Who were his parents? Mary and Joseph and they were very happy with the king's gifts.
Why do we celebrate Christmas? (silence) I believe in unicorns and pixies.
At least one of the answers gave me some hope that what we have been teaching our children and our children’s children might have made some impact.
But the answers also made me think about the true meaning of Christmas and the temptation to preach about the need to dismiss all that distracts us at this time of year from the true meaning of the birth of baby Jesus - the presents and cards and turkey and stuff …
For me, the real meaning of Christmas is that God became human like me because God takes human stuff seriously. In the coming of Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us, God shows me how important all of my life is to him. In the coming of Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us, God is real, someone ‘with skin on to love’. The real meaning of Christmas is that it is all real (unlike unicorns and pixies), that God comes to us in the ordinary stuff of life. God comes to us and to all the world in overcrowded hotels, squealing babies, rough shepherds and wise men with poor navigation skills that make an unfortunate detour to Herod’s palace.
It is Luke who records that God comes to ordinary shepherds. He comes to them through angelic choirs and the song of angels moves the shepherds to belief and action because they are prepared to believe and act. They respond to the song by saying: "Let's take a chance! Let's set aside our usual occupation; let's change our lives and go over to Bethlehem and see if we can find this God-child."
How will God come to you? Where do you find a manger? In their ordinariness the shepherds check out the stables in this village and come across one with a baby sleeping in it. They meet the Holy Family and share with them their story of the angelic visitation. Then they go and tell others what the angels have told them. They make known what had been told them about this child. The angel's announcement of "a Saviour, Christ the Lord" is spread throughout the area, resulting in amazement in the hearers. We don't know what happened to the shepherds after that. The final scene in this passage finds the shepherds climbing back up the hill to where their flocks lie. The angel had told them what to expect and that's just the way they found it. We leave them glorifying and praising, the appropriate response to this unforgettable night. Because God comes to them, they are changed.
God is with us in all of our Christmases. What will our appropriate response be? Weighed down by all the Christmas hype we may not feel like saying with the shepherds: "Let's take a chance! Let's set aside our usual occupation; let's change our lives and go over to Bethlehem and see if we can find this God-child." And that is OK. For in the coming of Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us, every ordinary person becomes part of the story of God’s love. That’s the true meaning of Christmas.
Come, Lord Jesus. Be born in us this Christmas.
With Advent and Christmas blessings, Nicola