Great Little One

Great little one whose all-embracing birth
lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Christmas morning sermon preached at St Mary-at-Latton Harlow by Piers Northam, Licensed Lay Minister.

We’ve just heard the opening of Saint John’s Gospel – to quote the traditional carol service: ‘St John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation’…  Those words, with their strange, riddle-like poetic language are, on the one hand, familiar – you’ve probably heard that opening phrase many a time:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’…

But they’re still quite puzzling.  What do they mean?  Of course one trick to opening it up is simply to substitute ‘Word’ with ‘Jesus’

In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.

John, at the opening of his Gospel, assumes that we know the story of the birth of Christ so he jumps head-first into the theology of the thing, unpacking what’s going on here at a cosmic level.  No muckin’ about for St John the Evangelist!  And it’s important stuff that he’s setting out for us – about the very nature of Jesus: about who he really is.

There are some other words that I love which are often used at Midnight Mass as the Christ-child is laid into the crib scene and the crib blessed:

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
heaven in earth and God in man.

Great little one whose all-embracing birth
lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

These words do a similar job in helping us to understand who Jesus is and what his purpose is in the world:  Eternity – the God of Ages – is shut in a span – the God who created all that exists, is swaddled and wrapped tightly in the confines of a human life; the Ancient of Days is born as an infant child: the Little-one, whose all-embracing birth will stretch arms out across the world; will stand for all people in order to form a bridge; a link between heaven and earth, between God and humankind.  It is a wondrous and mind-boggling thing…

Yet in the midst of all the theology, it’s also good to dwell for a moment on the simplicity of the story of Christmas – and on the facts and circumstances of Jesus’ birth for I feel they have strong resonances for us in 2020, this strangest of years.

The circumstances aren’t promising, are they?  This is a child born to a couple who are a long way from home; unable to find lodging; forced to hole up in a stable amongst the animals.  (Bedding down in a cowbarn would be scary enough at the best of times – I’d be worried about being trampled if nothing else – but imagine doing that heavily pregnant!)  This is a child born out of wedlock; born into the grubby straw and bedded down in a feeding trough.  This is a child born into a country under foreign political occupation who will, before long, become a refugee simply for who he is: forced to leave his country with his parents and to make the risky journey to Egypt…  I wonder if overladen dinghies and extortionate fees for passage were involved?  It certainly isn’t chocolate-box, is it?  But it has an awful lot in common with millions of people round the world, contending with similar situations today.  For this Emmanuel – God with us – isn’t a God of theories and notions, but one who is willing to get down and dirty in the complexities and anxieties of our lives. 

Andrew Marr the other day asked Archbishop Justin if Christmas had been cancelled this year – and of course much of our celebration of the feast has been curtailed – but Christmas?  No.  For that first Christmas – just as the Easter that would follow some thirty or so years later – stands for all time: proclaiming God’s love for us; God’s desire to build a relationship with us and work with us; to be intertwined in our lives; to walk in our shoes… And in this year of fear and anxiety; of insecurity and loneliness; of sickness and grief, that’s exactly where God has been: walking with us; living in us; working through us.

You see God – in Jesus – puts himself right into the midst of the mess and confusion of human existence.  And in doing so, takes an enormous risk: not forcing himself on us, but entrusting himself to us – making himself completely vulnerable that most fragile of forms; a human baby.  This is a child born in a stable surrounded by ox and ass and sheep – yet their young are born and within minutes they are up and walking; instinctively and quickly developing and able to fend for themselves to a certain extent.  But the child wrapped up in swaddling clothes – as with all human children – is totally defenceless and dependant on his parents to nurture and form him; to feed and clothe him; to protect and cherish him.

God – the very God who created Light and Life – makes himself defenceless and reliant on us…  From the outset, this is a shared endeavour between God and humankind: one where we are not obliged, but where we have to choose to take part – just as the young girl Mary did, when she said ‘Here I am’ to the Angel Gabriel.

For Mary, of course, that ‘Here I am’ was a faith-filled leap in the dark; we, at least, have the benefit of being Easter people who know how this story pans out.  Which isn’t to say – as Beth reminded us last week – that everything will be a bed of roses: ‘Getting a blessing isn’t the same as getting a present’.  But whilst we’re not being asked to give birth on the floor of a stable, crowded out by the hooves of large animals; we are invited to be God-bearers; we’re invited to carry Emmanuel within us; to become places where the Christ-child is given shelter; is cherished and nurtured – where the flame of light that Jesus brings into a dark world can be fanned and fed to glow brighter.

In becoming that fragile child, God creates space for us; giving us room to play our part; to work together with each other and with God.  Like the best of parents, he is encouraging us to grow and mature and fledge to independence and then ‘rise up, with wings, as eagles’.

Christmas tells the story of God choosing to trust us and choosing to need us and choosing to work with us in his longing to save the world.  And, in the midst of all that feels grim at the moment, of God choosing to be there in the thick of it all with us.

So I say, ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ but also ‘Glory!’ to that tiny, earth-bound child whose birth ‘lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.’ And I pray that in this Christmas season you will be truly set on fire with love from on high and so find much to rejoice in.


Piers Northam
25 December 2020

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