Christmas Day 2014
It is an odd sort of gift, a baby. Not even particularly entertaining. All a newborn does is demand to be nursed and kept clean. Who wouldn't rather have something precious and sparkly, or playful and fun, for Christmas. No, a newborn baby just lies there sleeping or wailing or sucking.
For parents who have known the joy of a new birth, I wonder if it is not the anticipation of who the child will become that is so captivating. The promise of a life about to bloom, a personality ready to unfold in the coming years. The universal look of all babies slowly morphs into distinctive and individual features, unique and recognisable faces and bodies. We nurture our babies to see what will become of them and, most treasured of all perhaps, hold out in hope for a loving relationship that will bond us together for life.
As we look at this baby, lying in a manger, we invest in him the hope of the story that we know will unfold over the coming 30-odd years of his life. But if we just take this moment at face value, all there is to see is a baby. What are we to make of this left-field and quirky intervention by God in the affairs of humanity?
It tells us something about how divine power is exercised. God exercises power by becoming powerless. ‘It’s a birth story,’ writes Giles Fraser, ‘at one with what would become the central message of Jesus’ teaching: the first will be last and the last first.’
And it is only when we learn to embrace powerlessness that we can give up our delusions of grandeur, our posturing and clambering for position in life. Whether we seek influence over our family, our colleagues, a bigger segment of market share or to be a player on a political stage, power is seductive, egging us on to secure for ourselves as much control over others, or our own circumstances, as possible.
Yet as spiritual leaders of many faiths have taught, real power comes from mastering contentment in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The hunger for more is never satisfied, it is only when we learn to be content with what we have that we are consoled.
When the Christ-child leaves the glory of heaven and begins life as a refugee, sheltering in an animal shed, God makes no attempt to control humanity or establish a power base. Instead he offers himself up to us in a gift of pure love.
A story like this has an enduring appeal for us because we recognise the truth of its inverted power. So, too, when we learn a Pope has given up his palace to live in a boarding house, or that an Archbishop buys his shoes in a charity shop: we warm to them because we know their actions run counter to our own instincts. Perhaps a part of us yearns to possess the kind of contentment that is satisfied with such simplicity.
The austerity that is blighting so many lives today — forcing hundreds of thousands to go to foodbanks for handouts for example — has its roots in an economic culture unable to understand the concept of sufficiency. Whether it be City bonuses, tax-dodging corporations or celebrities, or powerful politicians insulated from the reality of poverty by the multi-million pound trust funds they inherited, there has never been a better time for Britain to learn the spirituality of sufficiency.
The powerlessness of the Christ-child also reminds us of what is wrong with much religion.
We live in a world where, this year alone, we have seen the damage done by religious fundamentalists who terrorise others in their bid to grab power. It may be extremist Islamists in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere who are in the headlines just now, but Christianity has its own equally bad history of abuses and terrorism.
Jesus, the adult, had much to say about self-serving religious leadership which cherished dogma above compassion.
In Britain today there is no shortage of Christians who try to manipulate and coerce others into their brand of faith. Attempts to gain control over the lives of others has no place in the Christmas story, because the gift of a newborn in a borrowed crib asserts that for God power is found through self-giving love and not through force. Grace is a gift, not a guilt-trip. And, as St Paul wrote in one of his letters, ‘God's grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ (2 Corinthians 12.9)
As we enjoy the festivities of the Christmas season I hope we can learn the truth of the mantra, ‘It is sufficient,’ and relinquish the quest for more, accepting instead the invitation to discover the contentment that comes from saying ‘I have enough.’
I hope that whatever this Christmas Day brings you, you will discover it to be sufficient and I wish you a very happy day.