Saturday, 3 January 2015


The true meaning of Christmas, St Matthew’s Midnight Communion, Christmas Eve 2014

My sermon this evening is entitled the true meaning of Christmas.   I had decided on this title and this subject last Sunday because of something Steve said at the Carol Service.   I can’t quite remember what he said exactly but he said something like ‘These days people often tell us that we need to find the true meaning of Christmas but without specifying what that is’. 

And then yesterday I found that the Church of England has invited all its followers on Twitter to tweet what Christmas means to them in 140 characters using the hashtag: ‘ChristmasMeans’.   {Sorry if you don’t know what a hashtag is: you’ll have to ask a Twitter user.)

In response there have been thousands of tweets over the last few days – in particular from Bishops who tweet.   Tweets such as ‘#ChristmasMeans that in Jesus, God has given us the most precious gifts of all: forgiveness and hope’ from Justin Welby - the Archbishop of Canterbury.   And ‘#ChristmasMeans God in humility enters the heart of the world, once and for all, the eternal remedy for the deadly poison of our pride’ from Stephen Croft , the Bishop of Sheffield.

And then there are quite a few clever one such as ‘#ChristmasMeans God used means to save mean people’ or ‘#Christmasmeans the Meaning became moment, the moment became movement and the Meaning moved us’ both from Graham King, the Bishop of Sherborne.  But the best tweet with that hashtag I have found so far is: ‘ #Christmasmeans 'fun and feasting' says the Bishop for Ripon, James Bell.’   I’ll explain why I like this tweet best later.

Perhaps the attempt to summarise what Christmas means in 140 characters is a pointless, even impossible task, but clearly many Bishops and others can’t resist trying.   I am not sure sermon of about 7000 characters words (I’ve not counted) can do justice to the subject either.   And I am not going to tell you what I think what Christmas means.   I think it has multiple meanings and I think we have to work out what it means to us personally for ourselves.

Of course –I cannot resist leaving it at that.   Firstly of course I think we can assume – this being a church that – that the true meaning of Christmas has something to do with the story of the birth of Jesus – as told in two of the gospels, those by Matthew and  Luke.   And secondly that the search for the meaning is worth reflecting upon.

This search for the true meaning of Christmas seems to suggest that, somehow, we have lost something we previously had a hold on.   I wonder if that is true.  I wonder whether anyone – from Mary and Joseph onwards – and surely if anyone they would have good reason to understand the meaning of Christmas they would have - have had a good grasp on the meaning of Christmas.    

The idea that we have somehow lost hold of the true meaning of Christmas seems to go hand in hand with idea that Christmas has come to mean something other than what it should mean.   The complaint nowadays is generally that Christmas has become over-commercialised and t merely an excuse for over- indulgence – particularly of food and alcohol.   It goes without saying these things that Christmas has come to be are to be regretted and also that they are a modern phenomenon – never before experienced by previous generations.   I'm thinking that moaning that Christmas has come to mean something other than it should has been prevalent ever since Mary’s mother complained that the three wise men had spent too much money on completely inappropriate gifts for the baby Jesus. 

I begin to think that there is too much moaning about the commercialisation of and over-indulgence at Christmas: these after all are by-products of the fact that Christmas is and always has been a source of fun - in the words of the Bishop of Ripon - or more precisely a celebration to be shared in the form of hospitality and present giving.   If you are going to have fun then you need to spend money – and on more than the bare necessities.   After all a feast – again in the words of the Bishop of Ripon - is not just nourishment.  The communion we will share later is not just a meal it’s a feast.   You don’t need wine for a meal - water will do. 

I am not denying that commercial interests have attempted to hijack Christmas for their own ends nor that that have a tendency to consume more than is good for u, but the meaning of Christmas is constantly having its meaning changed by different ways of telling the Christmas story. Think here about Father Christmas.  

Is this Father Christmas anything to do with the Christmas story?   On the face of it no, because Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, St Nicholas, whatever you want to call him doesn’t figure in the story of Jesus’ birth.   On the other hand trying telling most children that Christmas has nothing to do with Father Christmas and they’d laugh and in a sense Father Christmas, Christmas trees even turkey are now part of the story which gives Christmas its meaning.  The question is whether we should resist this or go with it.  Some nativity plays apparently have Father Christmas bringing a present to the baby Jesus.  Does this really matter?  I think not.

So the meaning of Christmas comes from the story and the Church down the years – culminating in this year’s tweets – has sought to explain the meaning of the story.   The basic story - when you come to actually think about it is a bit strange - to have such apparent significance as to generate a festival that is celebrated each year in most countries of the world.

An unplanned pregnancy after a visit from an angel, a trek to a far-away town, a birth in a stable, visits to the new-born baby by complete strangers, a flight from a King who is trying to kill the baby: which of these parts of the story give it its meaning?   It’s the baby itself who figures in most of the tweets from the Bishop’s as if all the other characters in the story don’t matter in comparison and this is surely right.   After all, the baby is the main character.   

And of course the baby is no ordinary baby.   Extraordinary claims are made for this baby.   Actually rather a lot of claims – and this is where the true meaning gets complicated.   Referring to the baby, John – the writer of the fourth gospel – who tells us nothing about the circumstances of his birth, says that the baby was God ‘s word made flesh and dwelt among us.

But as Steve pointed out at the Crib service earlier today: the baby – the Word of God - says nothing in the story.   He does of course grow up to become an adult who says quite a lot.    But for the moment he is silent, even ‘no crying he makes’ if the Christmas carol is to be believed.  And there is a sense in which the meaning of Christmas cannot be put into words and perhaps we should let the baby be a baby and just celebrate his birth.   And that is why I like the Bishop of Ripon’s tweet best - #Christmasmeans fun and feasting