Midnight Mass 11
There’s a story told in Northern Spain about a local saint from the tenth Century. At this time, in the far north of Spain, in the Cantabrian mountains, the Christian faith was unknown to most people. It was a remote area, and if there had been any Christian influence before the collapse of the Roman Empire, it had long ceased.
But there were Christian communities elsewhere in Spain, and one monk who was part of one of those, decided that he wanted to take the Christian faith to these isolated peoples. His name was Brother Froilan. Full of faith and energy he set off alone, and built himself a hut near a village high in the mountains. Surely, he thought, the villagers would be as excited by the story of God’s love as he was and would be eager to hear it, eager to know that God welcomed them, that they were part of his family.
It was not so. Perhaps their lives were too hard for them to want to consider any new ideas – it was enough of a struggle just getting by, without having to think about the deeper things in life. Perhaps they were suspicious of this newcomer, unused as they were to anyone from the outside world showing any interest in them. Froilan met with a wall of apathy; they just weren’t interested. In a culture where even the next village might as well have been another world, what could some religion from thousands of miles away have to do with them? They ignored Froilan completely, treated him as if he just wasn’t there. He became very dejected. What was the point? He might just as well go back down the mountain to where there were people who wanted to hear his message.
The only people in the village who really noticed him at all were the children. Unlike their parents they were curious rather than fearful of this stranger, and often came and hung about near his hut. Froilan was quite content to let them and sometimes, to amuse them he would carve them small toys out of wood, something he was very skilled at. He would take a piece of wood, whittle away for a while and then suddenly, there was a bird, or a cat. One day, Froilan had an idea. When the children turned up, he picked up a small piece of wood and his knife. He worked away for a little while as they waited to see what would happen. Before long he was finished, and there in his hand was a woman. He started to work again, and soon there was a man to go with the woman. Then there were some sheep, and shepherds, a strange winged creature he told them was called an angel, a messenger from God, and some richly dressed strangers bearing gifts, and finally a baby in a manger, just like the ones their own farm animals used. As he carved he told them about the woman, called Mary, and her husband Joseph, about their journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of the child who had to sleep in that manger crib, about the shepherds and the wise men who came to visit. The children were enthralled, and in the days that followed they came back, demanding that he told them the story again and again. But every time he told it they insisted that he had to carve another Mary, another Joseph and all the rest. Soon Froilan had many sets of nativity figures in his hut. He couldn’t give the children the figures because their parents were so hostile to his message, so all those Marys and Josephs just piled up around him.
Christmas was coming near, and suddenly Froilan had an idea. In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve he crept out into the village with those figures and left them here and there around the village. In the morning – a morning just like any other to the villagers of course – as they went around their work they found that everywhere they went they were coming across a tiny woman and man and baby or an angel or a shepherd with some sheep or an exotic foreigner with a gift in his hands. What on earth was it all about? They had no idea. But of course their children knew, and they explained to their parents – this is Mary, this is Joseph. They had nowhere to stay, nowhere to have their baby. These are shepherds, who heard a wonderful message. These are foreigners from far away, who were made welcome. The children’s eyes shone with excitement as they told the story to their parents. They had heard it so often from Froilan that it had become their own story, about their own fears and hopes and dreams .And as they told it, in their own words, from the heart of their own lives, their parents listened, as they never would have done to Froilan, and they heard its message of hope themselves. And before long Froilan found that he and his message were welcomed and loved and respected in that village, and he was never forgotten, becoming the patron saint of that region and is still celebrated there.
Brother Froilan’s villagers heard a story which was almost a thousand years old even then, and had happened in a distant part of the world which they could barely imagine. And yet, once they had opened themselves up enough to listen they somehow found themselves within it – it was about them too. It came home to them with power and it changed them. It is an odd thing, that, because another thousand years on, in our world of the 21st Century, it still has power. It still resonates inside us. It won’t go away. Even if we are sceptical, or downright disbelieving of nine tenths of it, it still seems to speak to us.
And you don’t have to be able to prove that there actually were shepherds or wise men, or a star or angels in the sky to be affected by its promise of hope and peace and love. Why should that be so? I don’t think it is just wishful thinking or the effect of too many mince pies or too much booze.
I think the reason it is still so powerful is that it is based on fact. Not the fact of a baby laid in a manger and visited by an assortment of odd guests, but on the fact of the adult Jesus and the impact he had on those he met. The stories of Jesus’ birth, told only in Luke and Matthew, are a type of story known as midrash in Jewish tradition. This sort of story doesn’t have to be factually accurate, but it illuminates the essence of the matter. The stories of Jesus’ birth prepare us for what is to come. They tell us about the person he’ll grow up to be, the message he’ll teach and live. We’ll never know how true they are to the historical facts, but we can know that they are true to the experiences people had of him when he had grown.
The Gospel writers knew people who had known Jesus, and it was their stories they wove into the Gospels, which were written well within the living memory of Jesus’ ministry, within thirty or forty years of his death, and circulated among his first followers.
Here were people who had been fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries, prostitutes, housewives – all sorts – but they’d been drawn together into a new and very different community of faith, one where they were all equal, called to serve one another, where the old hierarchies and assumptions had been swept away. The Gospels reflect that, and the nativity stories prepare us for the story of how that community came into existence.
So in the nativity stories we meet Mary whose unexpected pregnancy puts her at risk not just of disapproval, but of stoning. This reflected the experience of many vulnerable women who found in Jesus an acceptance and a dignity which astonished them. There’s Joseph, who has to summon every ounce of courage he has to make a choice to do what is right and honourable for Mary rather than responding with the harsh judgement that his society would have expected. Jesus’ first followers often found themselves challenged to swim against the tide in the interests of justice and love. They recognised themselves here. There are shepherds, uncivilised, the bottom of the social heap, frankly a bit smelly. The crowds that came to Jesus were full of people like this; amazed that someone thought they mattered. Then there were those foreigners, the wise men, outsiders to the Jewish faith, excluded from God’s family. But Jesus broke down boundaries like that again and again in the Gospels. This good news of God’s love is for everyone, he said, or it is not good news at all.
The stories of Jesus’ birth point towards the story of his adult life. They say “this child is going to be for you, whoever you are. This story is your story too”. They said that to the people of the first century. They said it, through their children, to Brother Froilan’s villagers, and they say it to us too, even in our sophisticated, technological, globally connected world. We find our own hopes and dreams and fears reflected here too. And lying in that crib we find the one whose life still tells us that we are loved, that we matter, that we have something to give, even if we feel that we are unlovable, insignificant or useless.
Tonight, as you think about this story, I wonder where you find yourself in it? If you could take one of our crib figures home – please don’t, by the way! – but if you could, which would it be? Are you Mary, feeling vulnerable and facing something you’re afraid you don’t have the strength to endure? Are you Joseph, knowing that you have a challenge to rise to which will put you at odds with the status quo? Are you one of those shepherds, feeling that you are just too insignificant to matter, or too much of a mess for anyone to cope with? Or are you like one of those foreign magi, an outsider who doesn’t fit in? Whoever you are, there is a place for you in this story. Look carefully and you will find you are already there. There is a place for you at the manger crib. There is a place for you in the heart of God and among his family too. You are welcome and you belong. This is for you.