The Difference Heaven Makes: A Christmas Eve Reflection
A baby is born to youthful peasant parents on the move, in a dirty old animal shed, at a time when the Roman Empire is flexing its political muscle with brutal efficiency and taking stock of its power.
A short time later a roman governor does that flexing by slaughtering thousands of infants – no doubt the census made that job more efficient.
Thousands more are gassed by Hitler in the 20th century and shot by Stalin
And a few weeks ago kids are shot in their school classrooms by a teenager.
What difference does the birth of Jesus make?
I am tempted to say “A lot to some and very little to others”.
2000 years later and we’re still working that out. Each of us in the few years that we live is working that out – not in a merely theoretical way but in the experiment of life.
The birth stories give us a window into the first century… into the way the first Christians understood the difference that Jesus makes.
Last week I attended the funeral of a friend and parishioner who was passionate about heraldry and book plates, and coats of arms and the history of warfare. It made me think about the way history is told. Those with the swords and shields are the ones who define the meaning of history – Herod, Caesar and the Crusaders. I wonder if, in years to come we will have machines guns and atomic bombs as symbols of our history rather than swords and shields.
In the story that Christians tell of the birth of Jesus there is a link with pagan history. Jesus shares the same calendar dates as Quirinius Governor of Judea and Herod and Caesar Augustus with his army of thousands… take moment to imagine an army of thousands and thousands… but these characters are merely the side-kicks in the Christian story. A bunch of grubby, uneducated shepherds are closer to centre stage than they are. Over the years even the cattle lowing in the shed have had a higher profile.
Some would say that this is just religious sentimentality not history… historians need to do objective research to determine what is really of significance.
And we might want to ask ourselves what kind of objective research would tell us whether Augustus the Caesar or Jesus the Christ was the more significant character.
The first Christians believed the latter. They believed that here was the birth of another history, a misunderstood history, in some ways a hidden history. They believed that God was speaking a new history into being. The Word of God, says John’s gospel, became flesh. The letter to the Hebrews says that God had been finding ways of communicating over many years and with the birth of Jesus God’s speech made a decisive entry into history.
‘In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds (note the plural). He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’.
These are grand claims – the beginning, the source, the gathering together of a mysterious divine history. Such grand claims are part of the Christian process of working out the difference Jesus makes. But perhaps it is only in the making of such provocative grand claims that our unspoken assumptions about history and the sovereignty of violence (redemptive violence) are exposed for what they are.
From this Christian perspective the most vulnerable of births among the most vulnerable people of the empire is the beginning of a different future. Even where there is no obvious increase in justice or peace – in fact where the very meaning of justice and peace becomes uncertain and needs to change – not only history but consciousness itself needs to be opened up, cracked open. Precisely there, says John’s gospel, the light of God enters darkness. Even where Pontius Pilate and religious leaders combine to snuff out young Jesus of Nazareth at little over 30 years of age, precisely there, the darkness cannot overcome the light. And the darkness begins to be undone.
Does the birth of Jesus make a difference?
Each of us will go from here and answer that question, not primarily with words, but with our own lives. Together we will answer that with the common life we discover in community as we are caught up together into his history. Our life will be our wager that the birth of Jesus makes a difference.