Acts 7. 51 – 60
Matthew 10. 17 – 22
Well, here we are, back in church again on just the second day of Christmas. But I wonder if it feels like Christmas is just beginning, to you.
We know, of course, that the season of Christmas begins on Christmas Day, or really Christmas Eve but it’s so easy to get caught up in the way Christmas is celebrated in the shops, or on TV, isn’t it?
I’m ashamed to say that, despite my very best efforts, the tree in the vicarage has been up for weeks! I tend to get outvoted on these things at home.
But we’ve still got a long way to go. We will celebrate for weeks to come, the incredible truth that God loves us so much, that he sent his Son, the embodiment of that love, to be one of us. All the way up to the feast of Candlemas, on the 2nd February.
And as Christmas is just beginning, I thought it would be good to reflect on the way that the Church calendar begins Christmas – the way we are encouraged to receive this amazing love, that comes down to us on Christmas Day.
Today, the very first day after Christ is born, we remember the very first Christian martyr. The very first person to die for their faith. That brings us straight back down to earth, doesn’t it? Or does it?
Today’s celebration shows us, straight away, that this love that comes down at Christmas is so much more than just a nice feeling that fades away as the Christmas sherry wears off. This love is powerful. It can conquer violence and death.
Look at the story of Stephen’s martyrdom that we heard in our first reading this morning. It is Stephen’s love, his unconditional forgiveness of those who are killing him, that triumphs over the powers of darkness; just as it was Christ’s love on the cross that triumphs over death.
In praying for his killers, Stephen proclaims his belief in the power of the love that comes down at Christmas; that no matter what people may do to us, God is with us in the darkness, and brings us through it into his unfailing light.
Then tomorrow, we celebrate St John’s day. The writer of the fourth Gospel; the disciple whom Jesus loved. John’s incredible prologue to his Gospel reveals the truth that this love that came down at Christmas, existed in God before the worlds were formed; it poured forth in the act of creation; and in the Incarnation; and will sustain the world until the end of things.
And at the foot of the cross, we see with John and with Our Lady, the formation of the first Christian community. “Woman, here is your Son.” “John, here is your mother.” This love that comes down at Christmas is a love to be shared; a love that crosses boundaries; that creates new, loving relationships.
It redefines what our idea of a family is. For many, Christmas is the ultimate family time, isn’t it? But for many others though Christmas can be a very difficult time. For those with no family; the bereaved; those who have had a bad experience of family life, through neglect, or abuse.
But this love that comes down at Christmas incorporates us all into the Christian family. Through our baptism we all become sons and daughters of God; and brothers and sisters of each other.
Then, in two days’ time, we keep the feast of the Holy Innocents. The jealous Herod, terrified at the thought of someone growing up to take away his earthly power, murders all the young children in and around Bethlehem. It is the most appalling act.
And in the midst of this tragedy we hear of the incredibly difficult start to Jesus’s earthly life after the wise men go home. Fleeing for his life; nowhere safe to settle; travelling great distances to find safety. It’s a strange start to the life of God on earth.
But it reveals to us the truth that love came down to us at Christmas not as a powerful king or a conquering warrior; but in the form of a poor baby: weak, defenceless, helpless. God, who created everything that is, relied on his own creation for sustenance and protection. He relies on us to nurture and protect this love.
These horrific murders call us to acknowledge the darkness of the world into which Christ came as the light; and just how much we still need his light to shine. In just the last few weeks, unbearable details have come to light of the abuse and murder of innocent children of our own time, such as Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, and Star Hobson; and sadly, many others.
Our world needs the love that Christ brings at Christmas.
And there is so much more to come: we will celebrate the arrival of the wise men at the Epiphany, the revelation that this love is for the whole world, not just for a chosen few. We will celebrate the baptism of Christ, and his first miracle in Cana, and his presentation in the temple.
We are given such an incredibly rich beginning to this wonderful season; and it’s often lost in the ‘Away in a manger-itis’ of the post-Christmas Day fatigue.
But this time shows us the power of the love that comes down at Christmas. So what we can do in the face of this incredible love? Well I think we can take our example from Our Lady.
We have this strange and no doubt distressing birth, with rough shepherds and wondrous angels, even foreign kings with meaningful gifts, all showing up in this backstreet in Bethlehem; and all who hear about it are amazed and in awe.
But we read that Mary treasures all their words and deeds and ponders them in her heart. That’s what we can do. We can enter fully into the wonderful mystery of this season; we can treasure the hymns, the readings, the art, the poetry. We can take time out to reflect on them and make room in our hearts for the truths they reveal. We can nurture this gift of love, and share it with others.
And we can ponder what it all means for us. It might take a lifetime to even scratch the surface. But we keep pondering, and through it, we pray that this amazing love that is born at Christmas can be born in us too, today, and every day. Amen.