The Christ Mass
24 & 25 December 2019
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Around the world today millions of people will engage in various rituals to mark the birth of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.
Millions of Orthodox Christians will keep the same feast on January 6 & 7, while the Armenians will have their celebrations on January 19.
Some of those people will be in Bethlehem itself, where crowds will attend services at the ancient Church of the Nativity as well as the nearby Lutheran Christmas Church.
Some will join in the celebrations by digital communications, singing carols together despite thousands of kilometres distance between the participants, or watching the liturgy on television.
Some will be in remote military bases where soldiers serving as peacekeepers or as members of international forces take time out to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’.
Some will be in grand cathedrals in Rome, London, Paris, Washington, Melbourne or Brisbane; to name just a tiny handful of places.
Some will be on holidays by the sea or camping out in the bush, where the stars shine more brightly.
Some will be pausing their fire-fighting efforts to remember the child whose birth we celebrate today.
Some will be in churches across Grafton, as Christians of different traditions mark this special day in ways that reflect their particular understanding of faith.
And some of those people are right here in the Cathedral for this service!
Not everyone will be a person of faith, but Jesus has a significance for our world that goes beyond religion.
It would be hard to identify any other individual who has had the impact on the world which Jesus has had over the past 20 centuries.
Yet, to the extent that we know anything at all about the circumstances of his birth, it was not a promising start.
His immediate family—Mary and Joseph, along with several brothers and at least few sisters—were from the small village of Nazareth in Galilee.
Luke has the family based there even before Jesus is born, while Matthew has them move to Nazareth for safety after they become refugees and asylum-seekers. It was a good thing they were not seeking refuge in our country. They would have ended up in off-shore detention with a lifetime ban on entry to Australia.
We now know quite a bit about Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
It was a small pioneer farming village. Maybe just 15 families who had recently relocated from the south (near Jerusalem) to establish a Jewish presence in the Galilee area, perhaps encouraged by government land grants and tax concessions.
Nazareth was—by our standards—a third-world village. Most families started out using one of the local caves for shelter, as well as storage for their crops. The caves also provided a place to hide from bandits and tax collectors. Over time the caves were modified with modest structures being added at their openings, but the village had not yet developed to point of having a schoolhouse or a resident rabbi.
Like many pioneer communities, the families of Nazareth maintained strong ties with the places from which they had emigrated. For the family of Joseph that seems to have been Bethlehem, but we know from our archaeological finds that these people were very attached to the Temple in Jerusalem.
From this previously unheard-of village came someone whose name has become famous: Jesus of Nazareth.
The Holy Child of Nazareth held no political or priestly office, and commanded no armies. He was not born into a wealthy family nor into a family with high status in the wider community.
So far as we can tell he was illiterate, not being educated sufficiently to master either reading or writing.
The longest journey he ever took as an adult was the 100km from Nazareth to Jerusalem.
That journey took him to his death: executed on a cross as a rebel against the Roman Empire.
His ragtag band of followers scattered and went back to their old lives as fishermen, scribes, and tax collectors.
From humble origins, his life had ended in shame and failure.
Yet Jesus turned the world upside down.
Almost exactly 300 years after his execution the Roman Emperor Constantine publicly identified himself as a follower of Jesus and convened a council of bishops from around the Roman Empire—all at government expense—to draft the creed we shall say together in just a few minutes time.
The story since then has not been all glory and success. We have failed so many times and in so many ways. We have done what Jesus would never do and aligned ourselves with people of power and wealth.
Even worse, we have abused and exploited children and other vulnerable people.
Despite the church, millions tonight will gather in homes and churches to mark the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, but sought no power for himself.
Jesus healed the sick, gave hope to the oppressed, fed the hungry and was even said to raise the dead back to life.
Jesus blessed bread and wine, then invited anyone to come and eat. No limits to acceptance. No boundaries to compassion.
“Imagine this”, Jesus said. “Imagine a world where God’s law of love prevails rather than the edicts of Caesar or the privileges of the powerful.”
And he taught us a prayer which—if we ever really lived it fully—would turn our own lives upside down as well:
Our father in heaven …
Your kingdom come …
Your will be done on earth as in heaven …
Give us the bread we need for today, one day at a time …
Forgive us by the measure of how we forgive others …
Do not put us to the test …
We shall say that prayer together later in this service, and I invite you to hear afresh how that prayer reverses what we often think we know about God, or power, or church, or ourselves.
This is the legacy of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight.
No wonder Jesus matters even to people for whom religion is meaningless.