I wonder whether you have ever received a present that has changed everything for you? A present that has led you on a journey of discovery? A present that has stimulated a life-long interest, or fascination? For many boys of my generation – though not me – something like a Meccano set may have led to an interest in engineering. Or what about train sets and dolls houses? I suspect that many parents and grandparents thoroughly enjoy giving gifts to family members that they have enjoyed, and in reality still enjoy playing, or tinkering with, many years later. There is something about giving to someone else something that has enriched our lives.
My life changing present would be this: R.J. Unstead’s Children’s Encyclopdia of History. As a boy I loved delving into it. I really enjoyed learning about the events that have shaped our, British, history. But, in particular I enjoyed learning about the characters that have left an indelible mark on our history and culture. Through this book I developed a life long interest in understanding the events that shape people, and also how people shape events. This book opened up a whole new world for me. In fact when I applied for my MA in Ministry and Theology I was asked to list five books that had shaped how I view the world. As I was training for priesthood I thought that I really ought to put the Bible at the top of the list. I nearly put the BCP at number two on my list, but was talked out of it by a friend who thought it a ‘little smarmy,’ and suggested that my interviewers might view it as an opportunity to ask a whole load of questions, that I would be completely unable to answer on the some of the more arcane services in the Prayer Book. So, Unstead’s masterpiece was given the ‘silver medal’ position.
I don’t think it is too big a claim to say that this book shaped how I read other texts, even sacred texts such as the Bible. You see I am far more interested in reading about and reflecting on the great biblical narratives and, the nature of the characters that bring these stories to life than I am in finding so called proof texts to validate any prejudices or dogmas that we might hold. It seems to me that religion goes very badly wrong when the latter approach is taken.
Christmas is of course a major event in the Christian story. And, Christmas invites us to reflect on the nature and character of Jesus. In the Christmas story we learn that ‘the word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.’ As we gaze upon the Babe of Bethlehem our task is to ‘see his glory.’ And yet the glory we are asked to see is presented in the most vulnerable of forms; a baby. Our task is to cherish the gift we have been given, and to become increasingly intrigued by the person, and character, of Christ.
The bible readings associated with Christmas give us plenty of insights into the character of Jesus. We learn that he is ‘the prince of peace,’ and from the Psalm that he will ‘judge the peoples with equity,’ we have heard that he came to be the ‘light that shines in the darkness.’ But tragically we also learn that even though he came ‘to what was his own, his people did not accept him;’ the greatest present ever given.
So as we receive the present of Christ himself, let us receive him both with grace and fascination. We need to accept him as a vulnerable child to be cherished, we need to reflect on his character, so that in the words of the Psalm we can ‘sing a new song to the Lord,’ and to ‘all the earth.’
Our invitation at Christmas is to receive the word made flesh and then to share the story of the word made flesh, in the sure and certain knowledge that should we do so righteousness, equity, truth and light will follow, and the world surely needs, more than ever, these most Christ characteristics. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown