Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Christmas Day, Monday 25th December 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”
Lying in bed as a child being read to by my dad, usually the latest Roald Dahl story – is certainly one of my early memories. Stories, it seems, were easier to hear back then when the boundary between real and imaginary was less clear, when the world in my head interacted more openly with the world out there.
One of the cruelties of adulthood is the removal of story from that central position, the relegating of the things of the heart, the things of the imagination to a secondary place. It’s a process, maybe necessary in some ways but also destructive. With the teenage years can come a ‘grown-up’ perspective where story becomes something less than real.
As a teenager I disliked Luke’s soppy story of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and stable and sheep. I had ‘grown up’ sufficiently to know that it was all just a fantasy, an invention that took place in Luke’s head alone.
Thankfully as I get older I find I can creep back into Luke’s story, peer round the corner of my scepticism into that back yard stable and maybe glimpse something that I never saw before.
Lancelot Andrewes in his 1618 sermon for the feast of the nativity calls the manger in which Christ was born a cratch – in fact its an old Middle English word for a feeding trough or rack for animals and it comes from the Old French Creche.
“We may as well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… The scandal of the cratch is a good preparative to the scandal of the cross”
The beauty of these lines is the powerful link they make between the manger and the cross. The story of Jesus can move us, can transform us but it is when we see the bigger story that our life is changed. When we allow ourselves to hear the story from the cratch to the cross.
Sometimes when we know stories well it can be difficult for us to hear them again, as if for the first time. I am sure all of us have had that experience of seeing a play again after many years have passed or reading a book for a second time that we first read decades ago only to find that the story disappoints or that it hits us like a whirlwind and seems to transform everything. I am not good at returning to novels, but when I have done it often seems like a different book!
Some people are keen to distinguish between nostalgia and the deep longing for a lost innocence – but I am not sure I can always tell the difference. However we are richly blessed by God when he gives us the grace to see this story of the birth of Jesus again, as we first saw it, to rekindle, as it were, our first love.
The word “manger” seems to have lost all its dirt and horror, the word cratch is maybe too niche, and beasts feeding trough sounds too utilitarian. But whatever it is, it holds on this holy night of story, the son of God. It is the sign that the angels have given to the shepherds, a sign that speaks of great humility. Would that we could be overtaken by such humility ourselves this Christmastide.
The profound humility of the manger is a story we can never tire of hearing but it is also a story about love. To quote Andrewes again:
“The cratch is the cradle of his love, no less than of his humility, and able to provoke our love again”. How does this story of God coming to us in the Christ child, provoke your love?
The Greek Philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics insists that in certain expressions form and matter are indissoluble, that the transformative power of story and the meaning of the story are grasped through the story itself.
Which is a posh way of saying; ‘read the story dummy – its all there’. God appears to us in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by the beasts of the field.
Luke’s angels and shepherds, his stable and Christ lying in a manger is just a story, the stuff of childhood make believe. By God’s grace may it be a story that leads us from the cratch to the cross and beyond, a story that provokes our love and helps us to see once again the son of God lying in a manger.