How was Christmas for me?
That’s the question I was asked to answer for a piece in the Saltash Team Ministry Newsletter. And if there’s one word I would choose to describe it, that word would be ‘unexpected’.
Of course there was much that could have been expected. There were services of Nine Lessons and Carols in the cathedral; I preached and presided in the cathedral on Christmas Day. We had a tree, and stockings, and presents and a turkey. All of that was as you might expect. But there the list ends.
Domestically, all our plans were turned upside down, as they were for many other people. We’d expected to have our daughter and son-in-law with us for Christmas, along with his parents (although even that hadn’t been our original plan). But with the last minute changes it ended up being just Ruth and me on Christmas day – just the two of us, plus an enormous turkey!
And in Church much changed too. I like to plan my sermons early and I had my Christmas Day sermon all sorted out a couple of weeks in advance. But as the situation changed so quickly I realised that what I’d prepared really wasn’t going to be fit for purpose and would have to change. (If you’re interested, I’d written something on truth – Jesus himself being ‘full of grace and truth’ – as opposed to ‘fake news’. Instead I felt I need to say something rather more pastoral.)
So, yes, a very unexpected Christmas. And yet that should not strike us as being so very strange. The first Christmas was full of the unexpected. Gabriel appears to Mary; the Holy Spirit overshadows her; a virgin gives birth to a child; he is born far from home; angels frighten a group of shepherds out of their wits; strangers from the East turn up bearing strange gifts – and so on. So an unexpected Christmas is rather in keeping with the original Christmas story.
And there’s a wider lessons for our time in this. Perhaps we’d just got too used to all our well-laid plans panning out. The pandemic has rather put paid to all that. Now we recognise how fragile our best-laid plans can be. A key lesson for us in all this is that as Christians we must walk by faith rather than by sight, facing an unknown future with a God who knows us and loves us. Perhaps we’d just got too used to walking by sight rather than by faith.
But another powerful thought struck me – unexpectedly – this Christmas time. And it’s this. When Luke says Jesus was ‘laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn’ that’s not actually what he means at all. The word ‘inn’ is better translated ‘guest room’. And the ‘manger’ doesn’t at all imply that Jesus was born in a cow-shed or a stable. Quite the opposite. In Jesus’ day the family and the animals would share the same room, benefitting from the warmth of each other. So rather than being born in an outhouse, Jesus was welcomed into the heart of the home. And that of course is where he still belongs, if we will but invite him. And that’s perhaps the best and the most unexpected thing of all.