Tying in with our daily Advent reflections about the birth of children in the Bible, these three Advent Breathing Spaces pick up some more general themes we find in the Bible about children and childbirth. Each talk has a poem in it – one of mine – tonight’s will be at the end of this talk.
Last week we thought about the miracle of the birth of any child, the sense in which every birth changes the world even if only a little. This week’s readings, though, point us to the birth which we celebrate at Christmas, the birth of Jesus. If every birth changes the world, then this one absolutely transformed it. That’s the case even for those who aren’t Christian. The course of history, the fate of nations, our musical and artistic heritage, our laws and our customs were all shaped by the fact that Jesus came into the world.
In fact, though, we know very little about his birth for sure. Luke and Matthew are the only Gospels that tell us about it, and they tell stories that are very different. There are shepherds in one, Magi in the other. One starts in Nazareth, the other seems to take place completely in Bethlehem. They’ve got some common features. Bethlehem seems significant, and the child is born to ordinary, even poor, parents against a backdrop of danger. But whether either story is historically accurate is very hard to tell, and, in any case, Matthew and Luke weren’t really trying to give us an historical account. Their stories are more like an overture, giving us hints of what is to come, setting the scene, helping us to see not what happened, but why it mattered.
We have surrounded these Gospel stories with tinsel and magic and highly unlikely details, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” - like no baby, ever! But the central point that the Gospel writers make is that this child is, to outward appearance, no different from any other, not special, not an obvious candidate for Messiahship. He’s not born in a palace, where the Magi expect to find him. He’s not even born in the comfort of a home. He is born among the animals, lain in their feeding trough because there is nowhere else.
We see babies like him all the time in our news reports today. He’s the baby born in a refugee camp in a cold, muddy tent. He’s the baby quietly starving in Yemen. He’s the baby born right here in the UK, to parents struggling to make a home in a B & B, because they’ve been evicted by their landlords and can’t afford the deposit for a new place. He’s the child whom no one really notices, who doesn’t look as if he – or she – will ever amount to anything. And yet, in the case of Jesus, he does, because God is at work in him.
And God is at work in him not despite his ordinariness, but because of it. This is what the Gospel writers are telling us in their stories. He is an ordinary child, born to an ordinary mother, but he will go on to have an extraordinary impact. His ordinariness will be hurled back at him throughout his life. His opponents will ask him, in fury, “Who do you think you are?” again and again. “Why does this carpenter from a backwater in Galilee, with no qualifications, no pedigree, think he can turn our traditions upside down?” they will complain. His death will be a last, desperate attempt to put him back in his place. Crucifixion was deliberately humiliating. The Romans used it to concentrate the minds of those who witnessed it, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to get ideas above their station.
But Jesus embraces his ordinariness because his whole life was a sign that God comes to us where we are, which isn’t, for most of us, anywhere grand. He chooses fishermen and tax collectors, women and children, as his closest circle of friends and followers. When he casts about for symbols that will remind them of his presence, he doesn’t go for champagne and fois gras, but bread and ordinary wine, their staple diet. “This is where you’ll find me”, he says, “in the people who attract no special notice, in the bits of life that are disregarded and in the parts of yourself that you’d rather ignore too. That’s where I’m needed, so that’s where I’ll be.”
That’s the message which brought hope to his first followers. They were people like Paul, who wrote that the whole of creation was “groaning in labour pains” waiting to see the “the revealing of the children of God,” waiting for the moment when people would learn to see themselves and each other as the people we really are, beloved and precious to God, however ordinary we might feel to ourselves. God comes to us, in Christ, in all that is ordinary, and in doing so, makes it glorious by his presence.
So here is tonight’s poem. It is simply called “He is here”.
He is here
He is here,
blood-streaked from his mother's womb,
slippery purple with rage
- ejected from comfort -
helplessly beating the cold air
in the powerless protest of childhood.
He is here
in voiceless pain,
unnamed with the dead of the killing fields.
He is here
in the commonest things of life.
In rough wine, acid on the tongue
and the crumbling bread of the poor.
He is here
in the eyes which ask for help.
He is here, this Lord of Heaven.
He has slipped, unnoticed, into the thread of life.
He is here, this God of holy splendour.
Commonplace and ordinary,
he has soaked himself into all that is overlooked,
He is here,
he is here,
he is here.
Anne Le Bas