Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans famously tried to cancel Christmas, which they saw as a massive diversion from the simple worship of Christ. Sometimes today the diversions seem all that’s left, but I’m no spoilsport. It would be easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lose a wonderful opportunity to show generosity and share in celebration – even if we are all too aware of the commercialism and excess that lie lurking in the shadows.
The antidote to selfishness and self-indulgence is not to ban giving and parties, but to do them properly. And here I am preaching to the converted. The giving of our church congregations, in both cash and time and talents, and to both the needs of both the church and the community, is amazing and exemplary. And you wouldn’t be here to hear this sermon if you hadn’t already decided to make the most and the best of your celebrations and come to church on Christmas Day.
So since you are here, let’s reflect together a bit on the virtue of generosity, which is my theme this Christmas, and build ourselves up in it, because good as our track record is, the innate selfishness that we call sin is always going to try and trip us up.
I’ve had Cribs in my mind this Christmas ever since visiting the rather spectacular display of them at Grundisburgh church. I know that they gather the characters together from the different gospels, and throw in a few others for good measure, but it sets the scene. So just imagine a rather superior set for a moment.
I’m going to look first at the characters formerly known as the three kings (formerly because the Bible doesn’t mention three, call them kings, or imply that they were necessarily male). They’re an example of what I am going to call the generosity of convention. The shepherds, rough and lawless bunch they were, will come next and will give us a surprising example of what I will call the generosity of compassion. And finally to Mary, and we will ponder with her on her amazing encounter with the generosity of Christ.
First – the three kings. The word “generous” began life in Latin as just meaning “of noble birth” and only came to imply generosity as we understand it in Jane Austen’s time. The three kings gave their gifts not because they were particularly munificent but because that was what magi on a diplomatic mission to a new-born foreign king would do, just as their worship was a political courtesy not a personal act of faith.
Now that gives us something to talk about over the turkey. In the society of today social politeness and what I am calling the generosity of convention is on the wane. On the one hand we are much more casual with each other. On the other we do not value outward conventions so much as inner intentions. So pleases and thankyous, answering invitations properly and giving gifts when we visit are rather rarer than they once were. Do you think that matters or not? I think it does, largely on the basis that I know I have to kick myself to right thing, and don’t like myself when I am tempted not to and essentially let me own selfishness and self-absorption win out.
And perhaps it’s not surprising if some of our more structural social behaviours pose dilemmas for us too about the nature and limits of generosity. Should a charity or church give to others – some land, say, for affordable housing – when that will decrease the return to its own beneficiaries? How far should a business go in helping the community when that might divert value from its shareholders? And should governments give aid to other countries when its own citizens are under stress. Questions not answers: but a good gap between the courses is good for you and will give you time to chew on them.
But more positively, why don’t you and I make a new start this Christmas and try to set aside our self-ness and stretch out a generous and open hand to others in our public and indeed personal lives, opening the door to reconciliation and the peace of Christ.
Second up are the shepherds and what I am calling the generosity of compassion. Obviously I share the modern suspicion of outward convention that has little inner meaning – and Jesus did too. He used the word hypocrite. What I am not at all knocking, and neither I think was he, was the worth of the outward actions. He didn’t tell his followers to stop going to public worship or stop keeping the law. What he did do was challenge his listeners very strongly that what they sing with our lips they should believe in their hearts, and what they believe in their hearts they should show forth in their lives, as the choir prayer puts it. One can hardly disagree.
The point about the shepherds is that they were explicitly regarded as beyond the pale when it came to matters of both religion and law, so are extremely unexpected examples of good and generous behaviour. Luke says they were not just going out into the fields to look after the sheep: they were living there. Their contact with the animals meant they would never achieve the religious purity needed to take part in temple activity. And anyway, as Cumbrian farmers used to tell me, it’s remarkable how the livestock always needs feeding just at the time the church bell rings. Legally too they were suspect enough to be disqualified, along with women I fear, from standing as witnesses.
But then look at how they react when the news of Christ’s birth breaks. They hurry to the crib-side, they start glorifying God and praising him, and tell everyone all about it. “If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb” is Christina Rossetti not Holy Writ. But all the same, theirs is a response of the heart. It’s full on and it’s practical. They are feeling the scene not just observing it, they are being drawn into compassion, and they are engaging. I admire them for it, just as I admire and should no longer be surprised by the way in which those with the least are often those who give the most. And just as I admire a church congregation when it reaches beyond the formalities to offer real personal care and attention, especially to those in need.
So can you and I not only open our hands but our hearts a little more widely this Christmas, and show humble love and heart-warming care, getting down off our high horses to the street level of small simple actions that make all the difference?
And finally our gaze turns to Mary, and her encounter with the generosity of Christ. She’s done so much. Any giving birth is not nothing. Giving birth in her circumstances was really something. Giving birth to the Son of God passes our understanding. But at the heart of her witness is her simple willingness to say yes, let Christ be, and let him do for us what we can never do for ourselves.
So now she looks to Christ and wonders and waits. And so we too need to turn to Christ and wonder and wait. We’ve got our Sunday best on and got to church, model citizens every one of us. We’ve greeted one another and shown real love and care, warming all the lives we meet. Really? And can we sustain it even if we’ve made a good start? This is the real world of difficulty and challenge, false starts and failures. We’re doing our best to live out the generosity of convention and the generosity of compassion. But still we encounter our limits. The burdens of care weigh heavy. The energy for compassion and even courtesy grows thin. The darker sides of selfishness show. We run out of steam and we run out of grace.
So now like Mary, having said yes to God, we need to let God do for us only he in Christ can do: to take our limitations and our failings for us to a place, the only place we know of, where darkness is turned to light, where sin is forgiven, evil destroyed and hope returned. It’s the true gift of Christmas.
And see how Christmas always points to Easter. In our own little crib set from Bethlehem the Christ child’s arms are not swaddled-in but reach out awkwardly to form the shape of a cross. It’s deliberate. Christ in both birth and death makes the supremely generous gift to us of himself, of his presence, his love and his power to save, a generosity that springs from the very heart and nature of God.
And when you come to make your Christmas Communion you too will stretch out your hands, open like a crib, and will receive Christ’s presence into your very body. When you seek a blessing it will be of God’s gracious generosity to salve your very soul. And you if you say yes as Mary said will be given the strength to keep on living and showing generosity yourself.
Here is the heart of Christmas. Here is a new beginning for a broken world. Here is the reason that I can wish you with all my heart a most happy Christmas, full of all the blessings of Christ, whose mass it is.