Bishop of St Albans Christmas Sermon
St Albans Cathedral – 25.12.2016
A few years ago I had eighteen members of the family staying for Christmas. My brothers, sister and mother arrived with children in tow, several of whom had brought musical instruments. My wacky sister was determined that we would go out carol singing. I was nervous about launching my slightly mad family on the unsuspecting neighbours, but was sister was not to be put off.
We made lanterns and warmed homemade mince pies to give to the neighbours, most of whom I knew very well and counted as friends. The weather was bitterly cold so we wrapped up with coats, scarves and hats – so much so that I guess I was not very recognisable.
On hearing the carols two of the neighbours, who were clearly at home, simply refused to come to the door, perhaps fearful that we were asking for money. Another neighbour did eventually emerge, looking rather reluctant, half opened the door and tried to give me money in what appeared to be an attempt to get rid of us. He clearly thought we were a nuisance and more or less said so, until in frustration I took my hat off. He was visibly mortified when he realised who it was and found it even harder to accept the gift of a box of mince pies.
As we returned home that cold night I saw myself and my neighbours in a new light, living in our secure bubbles, with room for our family and friends but with so little space for anyone or anything else.
On that first Christmas Eve Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the town was thronged with visitors and all the homes and hostels were full. They travelled around, knocking on door after door, seeking somewhere to stay. ‘Do you have any space for us?’ But, as St Luke tells us, the only warm dry place they could find was in a stable, ‘because there was no room for them’; no one was able or willing to welcome them in and receive them.
For over 400 years Christians in Mexico have remembered this episode and re-enacted it each year at Christmas. They call it the Pasada. Its origins lie in a tradition started by Conceptionist monks visiting each other’s monasteries, carrying large statues of Joseph and Mary. They would knock on the massive wooden doors of the monasteries, crying out loud ‘Is there a welcome?’ and ‘Do you have room for Christ?’ Soon the tradition was copied by local churches and before long the tradition of making human sacrifices in honour of their ancestral God was transformed from a time of bloodshed into a time of giving and celebration, as they received Christ.
Still today this tradition persists. As Advent draws to a close, people set out from their homes, bearing statues of the holy family. When they arrive at their neighbours they knock on the door and ask ‘Is there a welcome here? Do you have room for Christ? Then the doors are opened wide and they enter with the Holy Family.
This custom expresses one of the most significant truths of Christmas: Jesus Christ comes to dwell with us, in our homes and among our families. He is not only to be found in the churches or in the monasteries but makes his home in the ordinary places of life, among us. In the words of Angelus Silesius
“Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee –
But all in vain until he is born in me.”
The Pasada picks up on another of the most intriguing aspects of the Christmas story. As the most momentous of events took place at the first Christmas, the vast majority of people missed them. The gospels tell us nothing about the crowds of people who were meeting up with their friends in Bethlehem. No, it is the shepherds, men who were outcasts in their society, who are the first to hear the good news. It is the mysterious magi from foreign lands who make the journey and bow down to worship.
At the beginning of his gospel St John, notes with irony: Christ was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’.
‘…to all who received him …
At the heart of the events of Christmas is the invitation to open ourselves up to God and to receive something. This, of course, turns upside down many people’s expectations of Christianity, which they think is about commandments, rules and obligations – the very opposite of receiving. But God still comes knocking on the door and asking us ‘Is there anyone within who will make space for Christ?’ For those who make space for him, there is a promise that they will receive a gift: ‘he gave power to become children of God’.
But lest we lapse into pietism and retreat from the world in all its pain and suffering, we need to remember that when Jesus does knock on our door, he usually does so in the most surprising guises. Later in the gospels when Jesus returns and reveals himself to the righteous, he tells his followers
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25. 34 – 36). The people are puzzled.
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
We welcome Jesus when we welcoming the stranger.
Some of you may know the famous painting by Holman Hunt which hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is of Jesus, the light of the world. He is standing outside in the darkness and is knocking at the door. It is cold and dark. But he stands there with a lantern, waiting for our response. Holman Hunt tells us that it illustrates a verse from Revelation 3:20: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me’.
Jesus promises to come to us with his light. But there is one very significant thing about the painting. Look at the door. There is no handle. Jesus cannot open it. It can only be opened by someone on the inside. He does not force himself – he simply knocks persistently, hoping and longing that we will open the door and invite him to come in with his light.
We too can learn from the Mexican tradition of Pasada. In the midst of the busyness of our Christmas celebrations we are invited to be open, listening and expectant, so that we can welcome Christ into our homes and into our lives. And when we receive Him, the greatest of all Christmas presents, we will be transformed by His presence and grace.