Sunday 23 December 2007

Dates: a Christmas sermon

by Kim Fabricius, Christmas 2007

Are you good at dates? When I studied history at school – and that itself is now ancient history! – it was all presidents and kings and queens and battles – and dates. Are you good at dates? Let’s test you. And I’ll keep it pretty modern.

Probably the most famous date since the turn of the millennium is indicated by just two numbers. Any guesses? Yes, 9/11 – 11 September 2001, the date of the Al Qaeda suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Go back five years to 31 August 1997, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. That’s right, it’s the day Diana, the “people’s Princess” (in Tony Blair’s famous phrase), died in a car crash in Paris. I remember Angie waking me up early to tell me the sad news so I could prepare something to say to you.

Most of us were in bed when Diana died, but along with 9/11, there is another date forever etched in the memories of those of us who go back to the 1960s, a day everybody remembers exactly where they were when they first heard the breaking news. Yes, 22 November 1963, that Friday in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was shot. I was in Mr. Borowicz’s math class when suddenly the tannoy went on. We all expected it to be the school principal with some guff; instead, it was a radio broadcaster, his voice shaking, telling us that the President had been shot. And before the day ended, JFK was dead.

In my father’s generation the date that everyone remembered was 7 December 1941. The next day, a Sunday, the American people, many at table, were glued to their radios as President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the Congress and the nation. At just six-and-a-half minutes long, it’s probably the most famous American political speech of the twentieth century. “Yesterday,” Roosevelt declared with due gravitas, “a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Every American knows that phrase: “a date which will live in infamy”.

I could go further back in history, but as far as memories go, that would probably pre-date everyone here! But did you notice one glaring thing about all the dates I’ve mentioned? They are all unhappy dates, they are times of tragedy: the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington; the sudden death of a vivacious young royal; the assassination of a leader who brought a sense of energy and optimism to a nation stuck in the doldrums; the treacherous assault on a country that felt impregnable even as civilization itself was in danger of collapse from totalitarian aggression in Europe and Asia. Times of shock and disbelief, death and fear, a sense of irretrievable loss, the eclipse of hope.

Of course there are dates we associate with uplifting events that inspire the human spirit. Since I have been in Swansea, there was 11 February 1990, when in South Africa Nelson Mandela was released from prison to the tumultuous acclamation of the crowds, or 9 November 1989, when tens of thousands of East Berliners gathered at the hateful Wall that divided the city – and the world – and began to dismantle it brick by prison brick. Golly, talk about uplift, about the bells of freedom ringing! And, of course, there are dates in our own personal histories – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and the like – that we remember – that if you’re married you had better remember! – that speak of joy and blessing. But today – there is no date like this date!

On this date – a day so important, so unforgettable, so life-changing, so world-changing, that angels bring the news – today we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Saviour. It was a day set in truly horrific times, in a nation under occupation by an empire of terror, with an economy of massive poverty and social dislocation. We hear of a working class family, with a young woman pregnant, that has to shift itself hundreds of miles to the south – why? – to be taxed! And then of the girl’s waters breaking – where? – in a stable!

To be honest, we don’t actually know the actual day, or even the actual year. December 25th the western church nicked from the pagans, the day they celebrated the winter solstice, the day of the returning sun. And, frankly, personally, I find it inconceivable that our Lord was a Capricorn: a Libra, surely! Nevertheless, as people in the Middle Ages used to date their documents – “counting from the birth of God” – today is the day we celebrate (as Karl Barth put it in a lovely little essay) “the secret that is also the secret of our age, our history, and our life. Christmas is where we come from; it is where everything ‘counts’ from. It is the source from which everything – and I mean everything – not just the personal and the religious, but the political, economic, and social – derives its meaning, ordering, purpose, and goal. For it pleased God in his majesty, indeed it pleased him well, to be born a human, to dwell in a child, to be a little baby boy” [much adapted].

And that means – and this is the heart of the matter – that from that date we can no longer speak about God without at the same time speaking about people, and we can no longer speak about people without at the same time speaking about God. This date in history – the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth – means that throughout all dates in history our humanity is God’s humanity, and God’s humanity is ours. Come shock and terror, sudden death and mass destruction, pain, heartache, grief, despair, we are in God and God is in us: we are loved and held, safe and free.

Christmas isn’t just another date, Christmas is the date, the date of the start of the New Creation. Enjoy it today. Take it with you into the New Year. And – a couple more dates – watch for its climax on a weekend in spring.


michael jensen said...

Thanks for that Kim - it is one of the preacher's great difficulties (and joys) to have to do a Christmas sermon each year and be fresh.

But: taking a leaf out of Rowan Williams' book - was there a stable in the gospels? A manger, yes, but no stable!

Andii said...

I'd always thought that 25 Dec was pretty much decided by 'political' considerations, but apparently, there's a bit more to it, potentially at least: Chrysostem...

Patrick McManus said...

Wow, just as I'm finishing up my own Christmas homily yours explodes across the page! Awesome.

Some words from Auden that I was thinking about when writing my homily:

"He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the Word of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy." (from For the Time Being)

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

Double wow! I've just used the first verse of the Auden quote over at Connexions, in a post entitled "God is not grumpy!"
If you like Auden, try Arthur Kirsch's Auden and Christianity (2005). I waited and waited for it to come out in paperback, and then about three weeks ago said, "Blow this!", and ordered the hardback. It arrived on Saturday morning - I'd finished it by the evening! I always like to do poets/poetry over Christmas (you'll see a few of my favourite more-or-less contemporary Christmas poems over at Connexions).

Have a good one, everybody!

Anonymous said...

25 December originally had nothing to do with Jesus, but now is a time for us each year to celebrate the Incarnation--no "mere date" indeed.

In terms of dates in modern history, I think of 2 in 1968--40 years ago. 04 April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN. 05 June 1968 Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), younger brother to the late Pres. John F. Kennedy, was shot by the assassin Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles, CA after just winning the California Democratic primary (and, thus, probably securing the Democratic Party's nomination and, almost assuredly, the presidency). He died the following day in the hospital.

Those 2 assassinations, King's and Kennedy's, stopped the movement for social justice in the U.S. and ushered in 40 years of regression and stagnation. I am hopeful that 2008 will mean the end of that wilderness wandering for my society and that, with progressive champions of justice inside the system like RFK and progressive social prophets who challenge the system from outside in grassroots people movements like MLK, Jr., we can once more move toward the common good. That's my new's year's prayer.

My Christmas prayer for all is for greater faith in Christ and more joy in walking in His Way of peace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Great to hear from you!

Of course my dates would be different were I not preaching to a small church in South Wales. World War Two (FDR) and JFK figure, RFK definitely does not. Were I in the US, brother Martin's assassination would definitely have been in there (perhaps coupled with JFK because of the closeness in time). But, hey, choose your own dates - to go with THE date!

Jon said...

I'm good at dates!

Anonymous said...

It's strange how humanity likes to put so much significance, so much importance, on things that have happened deep in the past.

Tomorrow is more important than yesterday. Tomorrow we can change, we can influence, and we can make choices. The past has already happened and how no purpose left except to help us make better choices in the future.

We look backwards more than is helpful.

Unknown said...

On first reading, I thought that last sentence was a prediction of the second coming. Now that would be a dramatic way to finish a Christmas sermon :-)

Anna Blanch said...

Very interesting post.

Although not as notable on the international stage, 22 November 1963 was also the day C.S. Lewis died. A quite remarkable day in history.

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