Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas 1: In my Father's house

Today’s Gospel story is one which comes with a built in picture. Quite literally built in – it is here in our stained glass window. There is Jesus, in the middle, a boy of twelve in the grand surroundings of the Temple – we’ve moved swiftly on from the baby of Christmas Day. And there are Mary and Joseph in front and to the side of him – they are the ones with the haloes - obviously concerned and letting him know that in no uncertain terms. How could he put them through this worry? I’m sure that many of us who have children have had that horrible moment when we realised that we had lost track of them somehow. It easily happens, and when it does, your imagination goes straight into overdrive with all the things that might have happened. The fact that Jesus is twelve makes no difference at all – my children are 28 and 30 and I am still waiting for the moment when I finally stop worrying about them….It hasn’t come yet…

So Mary and Joseph have backtracked a day’s journey to Jerusalem, probably worrying all the way, expecting to find Jesus lying in a ditch somewhere, or not find him at all. They search for three days, three terrifying days. But at last, there he is, back where they started, in the Temple. And has he missed them? Was he worrying about them? No, not a bit of it. We don’t know how he has been managing – has someone been feeding him? Has he been bedding down in the Temple precincts, or not sleeping at all? It doesn’t seem to have been an issue for him.  He is having a whale of a time, in the midst of the religious discussions that filled the Temple courts, listening, asking questions, debating with the leaders. In the picture here we see him in front of a grand looking chair with a plushy cushion. He looks as if he has just risen up from it, and I think that’s what we are meant to assume, because in his world teachers sat down to teach, with their disciples sitting at their feet. This artist is suggesting that that is what has been happening here. He’s been the teacher, and all these other men, far older and more experienced have let him take that place without question. They have accepted him as an equal, if not a superior.

When Mary asks him what he was thinking of to put them through this worry, he airily responds that he can’t see why they were so anxious. Didn’t they know that he must be in his Father’s house? He isn’t just saying that it was inevitable he would have been there, just like it might be inevitable if you have a clothes mad teenager that you would find them in the nearest branch of whatever the latest go-to place for fashion is. He is saying that he “must” be there – the Greek word implies necessity. This is where he needed to be, in the Temple, talking theology. Mary and Joseph might have lost him, but he hadn’t lost himself; he had found himself, found his rightful place, his true identity, his true calling. He goes back with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, but we sense that something has shifted. He is obedient to his parents – for the moment anyway – but this has been a wakeup call for them all. Their boy has his own life to live, his own calling to answer. This translation tells us that Mary  “treasured these things in her heart” which makes it sound as if it was a golden memory she liked to return to, but the Greek word actually just means that she kept it carefully, and my guess is that she recalled it with some sense of foreboding – a sign of trouble to come.

It is a shocking and disturbing story. Three whole days he is missing, just as he will lie in the tomb later for three days, lost to the world and leaving his mother to helpless grief yet again. Then, as in this story, it will essentially be something he has chosen – he could have turned back from the cross, spared Mary that sorrow, avoided trouble like the good, protective son any mother might hope for. But no, that was something he said he “must” do too, a path he must follow, no matter what the cost was, not only for himself but for others too, especially his poor, long-suffering family.

It’s not just anxiety they would have suffered in the story we heard today, though, but shame as well. Family obligations at the time of Jesus were sacred, just as they are in many societies today, and family honour a precious commodity, jealously guarded. Everyone had their carefully defined roles and they were expected to stick to them. It could work fine, so long as everyone was happy to play the part allotted to them, but heaven help those who stepped out of line, or who couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was expected.

That is what is happening here. Jesus declares that he is not going to be bound by the traditions and expectations that would have been placed on an elder son, that he would take over the headship of his family and continue the line. His ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere. “I must be in my Father’s house” he says. How does that sound to Joseph, do you suppose? Whatever we believe about Jesus’ parentage – and it is really quite hard to know precisely what the first Christians meant when they called him the Son of God - Joseph had cared for him for twelve years, probably at considerable personal cost. He had been a father to him, a generous and caring father as far as we can tell. If we find this story uncomfortable then I think that is because we are meant to.

The fact is that Christianity has always challenged as well as supporting family life. The Gospels are disturbingly ambivalent about families. They start with the story of what seemed to those around to be a rather dodgy pregnancy and end up with Jesus gathering a very diverse bunch of people – tax collectors and prostitutes included – and forming them into what is, to all intents and purposes a whole new kind of family, one not built on the bonds of blood but made from whoever happens turn up and want to be part of it. Jesus appears to throw the old standards and patterns of family life to the four winds. He treats unrelated women with a familiarity that would have been shocking at the time, debating theology with them at the drop of a hat. Leave your nets, your family businesses. Let the dead bury the dead, he shockingly announces. He does teach that it is important to look after those who are in your care, but he doesn’t put the family on some kind of pedestal, as if it is sacred in its own right. There are times, he says, when all of us might need to stand out against our family, not fit into it, and there will be families which won’t look the way our culture says they should. What matters is the quality of our relationships with those who share our lives, not the outward form of whatever we call family, or whether other people think they are “proper” families.

That was a message the early Christians really needed to hear and to proclaim. Many had lost the support of their families of origin when they decided to follow the way of Jesus. Who did they belong to now? To one another, said Paul – that comes through loud and clear in our second reading, part of his letter to the church at Colossae. The picture he paints is of a people who don’t just happen to come together in the same building to worship, but who are clothed with love for one another, bound together with inextricable bonds. It is a family in all but name, and probably for some the only family they will know.

This was a controversial message then and it can be a difficult one for us to hear now too. We wince for Mary and Joseph as we hear this story from the Gospels, and perhaps we would rather skip it all together, but the fact is that Christian faith, while it values families, warns us of their dangers and limitations too. Families can be wonderful places to grow and develop, places of love and care and respect and joy. But they can also be prisons in which people are forced into roles they are not meant for or suffer abuse in a silence they feel they can’t break because family honour would suffer. It is easy for the idea and ideal of family life to become more important than the individuals who are part of it, but the reality is that families are what we make them – there is no ideal family, just this group of people, that group of people trying to live together in whatever context they find themselves. When we end up worshipping an image of the family, we risk making the lives of real families, and those who don’t have a family at all, more difficult than they need to be as they strive to achieve that image, or are reminded that they never will. That can be especially acute at Christmastime, when happy smiling families seem to dominate the adverts, despite the fact that it is actually about a homeless couple with a baby of apparently dubious parentage born far too soon after the wedding to be respectable, attended only by a bunch of shepherds and foreigners…

I don’t believe that this story we have heard today is an invitation for children to go about causing unnecessary worry to their parents – we worry enough anyway, thank you. Nor does it say that families don’t matter. But it does call us to make sure we have a sense of perspective about them, not letting them become an end in themselves where the outward form is more important than the inner reality, but rather cherishing the many ways we can nurture and care for one another, in families which are whatever shape works best for those within them. That way we can create spaces where everyone can grow into their true status as sons and daughters of the God who is a parent to us all.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Brother Comgall and the mouse: A story for Christmas Day

Long ago, before the people of Ireland had ever heard of Jesus, a small band of monks came to found a monastery there. At their head was Brother Comgall,
a man of great and strange wisdom. It is even said that Brother Comgall could understand and speak the language of animals. When he and his brothers looked for a place to stay, the people were suspicious of them. No one wanted these newcomers near them with their strange new faith. But the wild creatures had no such fear. Birds and beasts welcomed him and guided him to the best place to build his abbey.

So the monks built their church and room to welcome guests as well, and though the people had been wary, they soon realised that these monks had a great gift to share, the gift of learning. Few people could read or write, but the monks could, and soon the local people realised that this was something which could change the lives of their children. So they began to send them to Comgall and his brothers for an education. Soon they were running a thriving school and taking in children who had no one to care for them.

It was hard work to look after so many, alongside all the other tasks of running the monastery. Night after night the other monks would find Brother Comgall still up at midnight, working in his cell by the light of a candle. They took to bringing him a little extra food, some bread and cheese to sustain him through the night. But unknown to them, Brother Comgall was not keeping even this to himself.  Every night, as he settled down to this bite of food, a small dark, twitching, whiskery nose would appear at a hole in the corner of the room, and two tiny shining eyes would peep out. “Come, Brother mouse”, Comgall would say gently. “Come and share what I have”. And a field mouse would creep quietly out of his hole and scamper ups the table leg and perch in front of Comgall. As Comgall divided the bread and cheese between them he would ask, “Now, Brother mouse, what news do you bring me today?” And the mouse would talk to him of life beyond the monastery, tales he had heard from other mice and the creatures which lived round about. Sometimes a migrating bird would bring news from further away too. Everyone wondered how Comgall knew so much about the world, but no one ever guessed the truth.

Illustration: Trina Schart Hyman

ow it so happened one year that the weather was unusually harsh and all through the land the crops failed. Comgall could see with his own eyes how it was, because the monks’ own vegetable garden gave little produce that year. To make it worse, the people were forced by the ruler of that land, the Prince of Ulster, to pay more and more of their crops in tax to him, so even the little they had was taken away. Comgall looked around at the children in his care. How would he feed them, not to mention the monks themselves? The autumn wore on, and the food stores dwindled. The monks were as sparing as they could be, each one eating less and less, so that there was enough for the children, but as mid-winter approached they could see that what they had would not last till spring.

One night, as Comgall sat up late worrying about what to do, the mouse appeared from his hole, looking angry and upset.  “What’s the matter, Brother Mouse?” asked Comgall. “Today when I was out in the fields with my brothers and sisters we came across a great white swan that had flown down from the north of our land, where the prince of Ulster lives. All the land he flew over is in the grip of famine. Yet he says that the storehouses of the prince are piled high with grain and meat and every delicacy you could imagine. Every night, he says, the prince and his friends feast till the small hours, while the prince’s subjects starve. There is food enough for all if only they would share it.”

Brother Comgall pondered the mouse’s words that night, and then he gathered the monks together. “Brothers,” he said, “we have barely enough food to last until Christmas, let alone to sustain us and the children till the spring. I have heard though, that the prince of Ulster has food aplenty in his stores. The Bible tells us that our Lord worked many miracles through the power of God. He fed 5000 with a few loaves and fishes. We can’t do that. But he did even greater miracles when he changed the hearts of selfish men and women and taught them how to love each other. This we can do, or at least we can try… I shall go to the Prince of Ulster and tell him that his people are starving while he has it in his power to feed them and see if I can’t melt his heart.” The other monks were afraid for Comgall. “The prince is no friend to us or to our God. He is as likely to kill you as to give you food.” “If we have no food we shall die anyway,” said Comgall “and so will the rest of the people around us, so I must at least try”.

It was a long, cold walk through the worst of the winter weather, and with little food in his pack Comgall worried that he would not have the strength for the journey, but at last he came to the castle of the Prince of Ulster and knocked on the great wooden doors. It was evening and from inside he could hear the sound of feasting and laughter. “Who’s there?” shouted the prince. “Just one of those monks, and a poor, thin, ragged specimen at that,” answered the doorkeeper. “Send him away!” said the prince. “I can’t be doing with having his sort in my halls!” But Comgall wouldn’t go. “I ask just a moment with the prince” he begged. Finally he was shown into the feasting hall. The tables were loaded with food and the smell almost made Comgall faint from hunger. “Well, what is it?” said the prince. “Your people are starving, yet you have food aplenty!” said Comgall, “The children we care for have nothing in their bellies and will die before winter is out if you don’t help!”

“What is that to me?” said the prince. “If the poor cannot care for themselves, why should I help them? You say your God is so great – appeal to him! Throw this man out!” he shouted to the doorkeeper. And Comgall was picked up like a sack and flung out into the cold night. He turned towards home with a heart made heavy by failure. By the time he got back to the monastery he was half-dead with cold and hunger. Just outside the monastery gates he collapsed in the snow, and if one of the monks hadn’t seen him there he would have died. They took him in and put him to bed in his cell as he told them what had happened. “Nevertheless,” he said, “Tonight is Christmas Eve, and in the morning we shall celebrate the birth of Christ. After all, it was no easier for the Holy Family than it is for us. There was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. If the animals had not given Jesus their manger he would have had no place to lie, and being poor folk I daresay they had little to eat either. Yet even so, at his birth the star shone and the angels sang, and so shall we.”

That night Comgall slept, and in the morning he got up and celebrated the Christmas Communion as he had said he would. The monks sang of the shepherds and the angels, the wise men and the star, and most of all that tiny poor child with only an animals’ feeding trough to lie in. Then, when they had finished their worship, Comgall said to the monks, “Go and look in our storerooms, and see if there might not be some scrap of food left for us to share.” Sadly he turned back to the altar to pray, but he had scarcely sunk to his knees when he heard shouts of joy and surprise. Hurrying off he found the monks gazing in astonishment through the storeroom door. There, stacked from floor to ceiling was fine food, food enough for all the people around to eat for months to come, and soon the invitation was sent far and wide for people to come and have their share.

But where had it come from? Comgall had no idea. That night, he sat in his room as usual. Sure enough, after a while, a small whiskery nose appeared, and two bright eyes. The mouse scampered up onto the table. “Brother mouse, do you happen to know how it came to be that our storerooms are full of food?” he asked. “Ah, well. It so happens,” said the mouse “that when the prince of Ulster so insulted and mistreated you, there were more creatures listening than he thought. One of my relatives was sitting in a corner unnoticed, and he heard every word. He knew of your kindness from the stories that had reached him from the other wild creatures and it pained him to see you so ill-treated when you were simply trying to care for people who might so easily be fed. So last night, the word went out and every wild creature in the land made its way to the castle and we crept our way into that storeroom and carried away every scrap of food that was there and brought it here to you. Not a slice of cheese is left to the prince of Ulster, and he has no idea why!”

Comgall laughed. “In years to come people will talk of this as a miracle, and probably give me credit for powers that I know and you know I have not got. But God be praised that the best and truest miracles of all are the ones which happen when every creature, great and small, works together for everyone’s good.”

And that's my tale, and it's absolutely true, whether it happened or not...


My version of this story is adapted from a variety of sources, with particular acknowledgement to Ruth Sawyer’s lovely old book of Christmas Legends, “Joy to the World” (Long out of print, sadly…)

Midnight Mass sermon, by Kevin Bright

Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-20

There often seems to be an assumption that the build up to Christmas Day is hectic for everyone, images of people rushing through crowded streets with multiple branded shopping bags seem to dominate, imagery reinforced by supermarkets lobbying the government for extended Sunday hours due to the fact that being open until 10.00 pm most nights and all day Christmas Eve simply doesn’t allow enough time for their customers to buy their turkey, veg and all else that is needed for this great feast.

The reality is that its restaurant and pub workers, emergency services, those caring for the vulnerable and homeless which should be getting the publicity.

Someone said to me earlier today ‘Oh I hope I haven’t forgotten anything’, to which my reply was I hope so too or we may all simply starve to death until 10.00 am Boxing Day when Sainsbury’s reopens! More likely die from overeating if we consumed all that is in the ‘fridge.

I’m aware that many ladies will be thinking ‘ah yes it would seem like that to him, he’s a bloke.’

Whilst I accept the fact that the social side of Christmas seems to often fall unevenly upon the ladies of the household it is not really this which I am wrestling with it’s much more what the reality of Christmas can look like to those prepared to go beyond these issues.

In Luke’s gospel we heard of a journey to Bethlehem, of Jesus being wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger and of an angel bringing good news to shepherds. What sort of imagery comes to mind as you hear these scenes described? It’s understandable that some have seen so many Christmas cards at this stage that it’s hard to have any mind pictures of our own. It’s also understandable that small children with tea towels on their heads are brought to mind as we fondly remember children and grandchildren in their nativity plays.

Nativity plays seem to be the equivalent of a 3 line whip to most parents. I had several business meetings cancelled or rearranged at short notice this month with the party changing the arrangements simply stating ‘it is my child’s nativity play’ as if this was a perfectly understandable reason for putting many others to considerable inconvenience, often at short notice!

The trouble with much of this sentimentality is that increasingly it builds the myth that Christmas is just for children. Ask people who have grown up kids and no grandchildren and they will often agree. Children may enhance Christmas as many aspects of life, but Christmas just for children, most certainly not!

I realise that by now some of you are thinking who is this preacher, Victor Meldrew? Too much shopping, too much food and too much priority to children’s nativity plays, whatever next?

Well I haven’t quite finished. I was in London’s West End yesterday (yes it was Sunday and no I wasn’t at church) and I saw a huge Christmas cake topped off with Santa’s hat, halfway up this creation was a crib scene. This reminded me of recent conversations I had where parents felt their children had reached the age where they should be aware that Father Christmas didn’t really bring gifts and at the same time they should give up all this shepherds, cribs and wise men nonsense!

I thought to myself how important it is that we remind ourselves that Christmas is for life, not just for children. In fact Christmas in its truest holiest sense becomes increasingly important to the old person dying alone in hospital, to those mourning the loss of someone they deeply love, to all simply struggling to make ends meet, hold lives together and to make some sense of it all.

We have the option to use Christmas as an escape from reality and our problems with it or we can begin to get a glimpse of what ‘great joy’ really means when we understand that God came to join us and to share life with us and ultimately suffer with us in human form.

For some the reality of Christmas will come by considering the historical context which Luke is keen to include. Emperor Augustus is sole ruler of the Roman world having turned the Roman republic into an empire which he heads of course. In the eastern part of his empire many people worshipped him as a god.

Augustus calls for a census, largely to assess taxation and it’s this census that necessitates the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to the city of David, Bethlehem. It seems unlikely that the place of Jesus birth was like the oversized B&Q style garden shed depicted on most Christmas cards it was more likely to be an animal shelter carved out of the ground below a series of stalls available for travellers off a common court yard. Not as romantic as most Christmas cards but put like this a gritty reality emerges of truly humble beginnings.

For some who feel God could never have a message or a purpose for them it helps to consider who the shepherds were. The orthodox Jews looked down on them as they were unable to keep all their rules and regulations, particularly the meticulous hand washing required. Stuck out on a hillside they would hardly have felt that they were at the centre of power or influence yet they are the first to learn that the world has changed forever. Perhaps the faithful reaction of those humble enough to receive such news makes sense now. After all the people of power are often too obsessed with their own agenda to truly hear and act upon good news.

Luke is inviting us to recognise the difference between God’s kingdom apparently fragile, weak and established on the margins of society and to contrast it with the all powerful Roman Empire where the emperor can ‘click his fingers’ and have hordes scurrying to comply with the census.

The shepherds are told ‘this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. The important point is that the baby is the symbol of salvation, in all his obscurity, not the angels despite the fanfare and wonder which must have accompanied their announcement.

This is God’s reality, not based on status and control but on humility, service, freedom and love.

As we move deeper into the reality of the Christmas story we realise that we remain part of it through the lives we live today. We may already be open and willing to receive Gods message for us and keen to glorify God through our reaction.

But often we may still feel more like the people Isaiah describes before they see a great light, stumbling around in the darkness. In our darkness we hear the angel’s message and may not feel able to respond but we are reminded that we deal with a loving God as we hear ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s up to us how we respond.

It follows that we shouldn’t be afraid if we find God in times and places where we feel we aren’t ready. God doesn’t demand an immediate answer to his invitation to live in relationship with him, he positively encourages us to engage our brains and commit to life with him which is sustainable rather than a rash reaction which has no roots.

After all you couldn’t blame the shepherds for being excited at their part in the events, but I bet that like most of us God would still slip from their thoughts at times as they returned to their routine tasks.

But what about the lady having the baby surely she must have had her share of excitement too. As I was putting this sermon together earlier today I was interrupted several times by text messages from my sister. 9.19 Her waters have broken. 12.32 Fully dilated.13.55 she’s arrived, 9lbs 11oz! This was the joyful news of my niece giving birth with a photo of the baby received at 15.23. Imagine a bunch of strangers turning up amongst all this to tell you that your baby is the Saviour, the Messiah, and the Lord, no wonder Mary needed a little time to ponder what she had been told as well as treasure it.

There is a truth to all that we have heard that allows us to get caught up in the wonder and excitement of the Christmas message but that same truth also demands that like Mary we ponder what it really means for us deep down. Ponder our lives, treasuring the gifts from God which we know to have real value but also to seek the great light of Christ to shine in the dark areas which still remain.

As we seek out a more meaningful relationship with God this Christmas let’s do so with humble hearts and open minds. After all who would have thought that you would find the bread of life in an animal trough?


Kevin Bright

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2012

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Advent 4: The power of one

Two women in a land under brutal occupation learn that they are pregnant. One is unmarried and knows that bearing a child will expose her to rejection and judgement, perhaps even violence, from her community. The other has been childless for years, and has probably been shamed and scorned because of it. Though this child will be welcome nothing can wipe out those years of anguish. And neither child will survive long enough to care for their parents in old age, in any case. Both will have been brutally executed by their mid-thirties, victims of the political and religious suspicions and hatreds of their time. The mothers of course, are Mary and Elizabeth, and we met them in today’s Gospel reading.

It is easy to miss the darkness in the Christmas story, amid the golden glow of the nativity plays, carol services, glitter and candlelight that surround us at this time, but it’s there loud and clear in the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is born amidst the chaos of a Roman census, a forced mass migration demanded by Caesar with no apparent thought of the human cost involved. He is telling us that this will be a story set in a world where rulers with great power do  what they want and the “little people” just don’t matter. There’s no historical evidence for this census, but clearly Luke felt it wasn’t an unlikely scenario and neither did his readers, who lived a generation or so later in a world still governed by Rome. Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Herod, the jealous king of Judea, who is prepared to slaughter anyone who gets in his way. Again, there is no independent evidence for the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, but we do know that Herod killed some of his own children and that he had a reputation for being paranoid, so it is a story that would have been consistent with the facts, and in writing it Matthew is warning us of dangers to come. Fear lurks in the wings of this story from the beginning. Mary sings of God who has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”. Her dream for her child is that he will be the instrument of this revolution, but her words ought to send a shiver down our spines. Doesn’t she realise that anyone who attempts this is sure to be heading for trouble?

From the beginning the Gospel writers seem to be setting us up to expect failure. How can these two insignificant children – John and Jesus – really make a difference? Isn’t it all a bit ridiculous, hopeless, to think that they will? And yet both mothers-to-be rejoice at the news they are to bear children in these difficult times. If we don’t find that odd, then perhaps we haven’t been paying attention. Do they really think that anything good can come of this? Are they just being carried away on a tide of maternal feel-good hormones?

But there is something very important that we must remember when we read these stories and that is that the Gospels were written backwards not forwards, so to speak. Today many parents record every little detail of their children’s lives from the first fuzzy pictures on their scans during pregnancy right through to their graduation days. But that wasn’t the case for children in the past. All but the most high-born came into the world and left it without leaving a trace of their existence. Only the births and childhoods of the really important would have been documented. The births of John and Jesus certainly wouldn’t have been recorded at the time, and Matthew and Luke probably never intended us to read the stories they tell us as literal truth. If they did then those who compiled the New Testament certainly can’t have, because the stories don’t fit together – something that doesn’t seem to have concerned the early church at all.  These are imaginative reconstructions designed not so much to tell us what happened, but to prepare us for what will happen when these children grow up. Matthew and Luke are signalling the dominant themes of their ministries, what kind of people they’ll become, drawing on the memories of those who encountered them in adulthood, the testimony of people who knew first-hand the very real and life-changing impact they’d had then.

Through their ministries people who’d regarded themselves as part of an exclusive, chosen race would learn to see God at work in those who were way outside it. People who thought they were beyond the pale of God’s love would find themselves drawn into a new community, assured of their place, sharing and proclaiming that love together. People would find healing for what ailed them, purpose for lives which had seemed meaningless, forgiveness for things they thought were unforgiveable, a new start when they believed it was all over for them. The message of John and Jesus lived on because those who’d heard it discovered that it changed them utterly. If it hadn’t they would both have quickly been forgotten, just another couple of crack-pot prophets peddling dreams that dissolved into nothing in the glare of reality. 

The joyful words of Elizabeth and Mary aren’t some foolish maternal fantasy; they are bold assertions that what you see is not necessarily what you get, that God can work and does work through people and situations that look completely hopeless to any rational person. Their children really did go on to change the world, and two thousand years later they are still doing so through the lives of those who follow them.

What I particularly like about this story is that these declarations of hope are made by a couple of soon-to-be mothers. They aren’t looking for some great army or grand political theory. It is the children they carry within them that will bring this new future, tiny, helpless , weak babies  - so that no one’s hands will be too small to hold them - and yet also limitless in potential and promise as any baby is.

One of the most popular religious images on Christmas cards – to judge by those I’ve received anyway – is that of the Madonna and Child. It seems a particularly powerful image to me for a time of austerity when many people are feeling fearful for the future, wondering what will happen to them and those they love, perhaps affected by cutbacks in public services or threats to their jobs, feeling the pinch and looking around at a world where many others are in the same or even worse predicaments. And that is without considering the threats of climate change, global terrorism and all the rest. I know that the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Friday, but for many the realities of life are very desperate – perhaps that’s why people are so susceptible to rumours of the apocalypse. In times like these it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed, to think that the challenges that face us are just too great to deal with. What difference can we make? What do we matter? But that image of the Madonna and Child – like the one I’ve printed on the pew leaflet – which picture Mary simply gazing at her child shouldmake us think again.

The point it makes is that far more comes into the world when a child is born than simply another human being. Hope is born. Love is born. Joy is born. A commitment to the future is born. All these expectations seem to hover in the space between mother and child in the picture – a whole new world has just arrived for them both. I’ve seen this same sense that a new reality has dawned again and again when I prepare parents for the baptism of their first child. Nearly always it turns out that life has changed for them in far deeper ways than they anticipated. Suddenly, they’re aware of the world in a new way, aware of its threats but also of its joys, aware too of their responsibility for the world, because it is the world that their child will have to live in.  Of course those without children can and often do feel these things just as intensely, but there’s nothing like holding a baby in your arms to  concentrate your mind on things beyond your own narrow sphere of interest. Here is the future and it is in your hands. It is not some grand scheme devised by a politician, or some bold military campaign led by generals, it is a child, just one child, new and as yet unknown, but a child who might just change everything.

The story we heard today, and the image of the Madonna and Child are really all about the power of one. Mary and Elizabeth each have one child who changes the world.  Their story reminds us of the power that lies in each individual person – you and me. It reminds us of the power that lies in each individual act and decision too – the thing that we do today, here and now. It is enough, it says, to look steadily at this one thing we are called to pay attention to, this one moment we are called to use aright. We don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to get it all sorted out. Just gaze on this one thing that God has given to each of us to do and to care about, and we will find God within it, just as Mary finds God within her own son.

If we can do that honestly and lovingly and faithfully, then perhaps we shall find, as Mary and Elizabeth do, that those apparently impossible dreams of healing and peace and justice for which we long, those dreams which can seem so ridiculous in the face of all that opposes them in our world, can come to reality after all and hope can be born in our hearts just as it was in that stable in Bethlehem.