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The real Christmas Story

'Silence all mankind,

in the presence of the Lord!

For he has bestirred himself

out of his dwelling-place' Zechariah 2:13.

This message of the prophet sounds a timely warning as we enter into the last few hectic weeks of preparation for what has become the most materialistic of festivals. The prophet’s warning to be silent in the presence of the Lord recalls us from our preoccupation with materialism. It challenges us to focus our minds on the central message of the incarnation. And it invites us to meditate on the relevance and meaning of that message for a world where there is so much worry, chaos and poverty.

All too easily the picture of Christmas than claim our whole attention is a picture of human indulgence. And this carries within it the real danger that we will lose sight of the deeper truth from which all our Christmas celebrations spring. So we need to pause, to take stock, to be silent so that we can take an honest look at the central reality of Christmas. It comes in a simple picture of a helpless infant who first views the world from an animal feeding trough in a stable because, to quote the words of the Gospel, 'there was no room at the inn' ( Luke 2:7). The stark and uncomfortable setting of this simple picture may be worlds away from the comfortable, well-fed Christmas many of us are fortunate enough to enjoy. Yet here in the stable at Bethlehem we face reality, because here is where it all began.

And so I want you to come with me on a mental pilgrimage to Bethlehem so that we can meditate on the scene in the stable. Of course, we have taken that scene and romanticised it by surrounding it with tinsel and by hanging coloured lights around it! So we must take a penetrating look if we are to really hear what God is saying to us from the manger, as we glance, at the same time, upon a world which contains so much sadness and confusion.

As we stand around the stable at Bethlehem there is much food for our meditation. Taking stock of our surroundings, perhaps the most obvious feature of the scene is that the Christ child came into the world as a homeless child. And instantly we are challenged by the fact that the God who has a claim upon our lives is a God who cares for and enters into the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed of our world today. 

But as our meditation proceeds we begin to realise that there is danger lurking around this stable at Bethlehem. The Christ child would soon be an exile, a refugee, because his life was being sought by Herod. And again we are summoned, this time to share God’s concern for the millions who suffer because of persecution, injustice and the horror of war. So in this stable at Bethlehem there is real sympathy for those who shrink from festivities at this time of the year because a loved one is suffering or because a loved one will not be there. The God who speaks from the manger is a God who cares for the weak and the oppressed. He is a God who is concerned about the victims of human sinfulness and the lust for power which drives some people to trample over the aspirations and even the lives of others.

Yet, we cannot leave off our meditation without noticing that the Christ child was born into a world which was not prepared to receive him. 'There was no room at the inn.' People were too preoccupied with themselves. If Christ were to come today would we be any better prepared? Perhaps we should pause and think how we could enter into the spirit of the real Christmas message. Maybe then we might find ourselves making a donation to Christian Aid as it endeavours to make visible to the poor something of the love of the God. The same God who speaks from the manger at Bethlehem!

Tax of Life Report

Canon George Irwin, formerly Rector at St Mark’s Church, Ballymacash,  retired as Chair of the Christian Aid group in Lisburn earlier this year. In 2014 he travelled with Christian Aid to visit partners in Zimbabwe.

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