Meanings of Christmas: A time of hope: an act of rescue: Today's articles in our series are Christmas sermons given by Fr Michael Seed, a Franciscan friar, and the Rev Graham Cray, Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

Christmas celebrates the birth of a royal child. 'To us a child is born . . . and the government will be upon his shoulders.' But it hasn't been a good year for children, or royalty, or governments for that matter.

The death of Jamie Bulger at the hands of two older children finished off any remaining illusions about childhood innocence. The deaths of two other boys in the Warrington bomb were a savage reminder of the frailty of all life, especially that of children.

Royalty, once portrayed as a model for family life, has become a tragic model of family breakdown; with some clergy questioning the suitability of the Prince of Wales to succeed to the throne. Our culture is marked by the absence of shared values and a deep suspicion of authority. For fleeting moments we wonder how we have come to this before settling back into a consumer culture which rarely looks beyond today.

The Church of England has not fared any better, its energies consumed by the infighting surrounding last year's decision to ordain women to the priesthood. Whatever your view of that particular issue (I say three hearty cheers]) we also needed our energies for the nation.

On the surface at least this is not an auspicious time to announce the birth of a royal child who will introduce an era of justice and peace. From this year's perspective the message of the baby in the manger is romantic foolishness; a story well out of season. But this has always seemed the case. Referring to Christ, the New Testament asserts that 'the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength'.

The true meaning of the Christmas story is not that God blesses our romantic ideas about childhood or innate human goodness; let alone our belief in our own ability to create a peaceful and just society. On the contrary the story of the birth of Christ is designed to show that apart from our maker's help we are not able to live together on the earth, and that our capacity for self-centredness always destroys our attempts to live according to higher ideals, wherever we get them from. Our experiences this year point to the truth of Christian claims, not the reverse.

Christians believe that God's coming into the world in the form of a helpless child is both an act of identification and of rescue. It is an act of identification because in it God enters our human experience and endures the worst of our mistreatment of one another. His birth was not in Herod's palace but as one of Herod's intended victims. In today's terms it was as though he was born to a Bosnian refugee family, on the front line, just one step ahead of the gunmen. In a world characterised by suffering and brutality God, as Christ shows Him to be, is a God who shares His people's suffering.

But identification alone is not enough. We also need rescue. Christ's birth is announced as that of a Saviour, and as good news for all people. His name, Jesus, means 'rescuer'. He is given it because 'he will save his people from their sins'. The birth of Christ is God to the rescue. The first to be told the news are shepherds, a trade excluded from the community's trust and respect; the sort of people who are the object of special security laws; the New Age travellers of their day. Here is no blessing of respectability.

The other nativity story, with good historical foundation whatever the Bishop of Durham may say, is that of the Magi. These combined, in a pre-scientific age, what we now call theology, astronomy and astrology. They were seekers after truth both in and beyond the natural world. The birth of Christ united those excluded by society who saw themselves unloved by God, and those seekers after God who were willing to go beyond armchair discussions and undertake an arduous and hazardous journey to test out their intuition.

To both categories and to everyone else Christ is announced as rescuer. Rich and poor, educated and unschooled are seen as in equal need of rescue and of equal value to God. The rescue was not to be carried out at once. The child must first become an adult and demonstrate God's all- inclusive love in a short public ministry the consequences of which have reverberated through history. The rescue would be carried out, not by a helpless baby in a manger, but by a helpless man on a cross. Whoever hears the Christmas story needs to ask 'and how did it end?' The full meaning of Christmas is unpacked at Easter in a death and resurrection.

A new society of justice and peace begins as individuals find the new beginning only Christ can make possible. As the children's carol says, 'He's only a baby. He'll grow to a man. He'll ask you to finish the work he began.' In our ability to receive and do that lies the key to our

future.

Graham Cray

THIS IS a very wonderful and yet slightly odd time of year. We see excessive hustle and bustle, twinkling lights, glitter of all kinds. We hear strange cries of jubilation. We see people weighed down with heavy boxes and bags of toys. Something different is in the air.

When I think of Christmas and all its business to conclude the end of a working year and yet trying to be sufficiently generous of spirit amidst the extreme rush of life, I keep thinking of the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. Francis asked to be buried as he was born, with nothing on. His wish was denied him by his brethren. It is so difficult to live with a saint because their behaviour is so outrageous. They are provocative people, they make us feel slightly uncomfortable. Francis was the author of the Christmas crib. He used real living creatures as his first crib to show how all created things, all life, is wanted.

A comparatively young man, Francis was carried to the foothills of Assisi, he lay dying on the soil. He was close to nature. The animals came to sing farewell to him. Francis before he died received the marks of Christ on his body, his hands, his feet and his side. He was a total reflection of the very person of Jesus Christ.

When we look to the crib, when we stare at the little baby, I ask myself what thoughts were going through the mind of Mary and Joseph. The Christmas message is a very simple one and when we look at the crib we see two things clearly. First, that we cannot go through life alone. We are made for others. Secondly, our life as we know it is a gift, every second, every breath. Time passes so quickly.

We are often very emotional around this season, we see it as a time for children. I often hear it said that Christmas is only a time for children. However I feel that as we get older we tend to carry so many heavy baggages. When I look at the baby Jesus in need of love, in need of care, I ask myself how many opportunities I have missed for doing precisely that.

As we get older our lives become increasingly busy with many distractions. I call this 'magpie' living, seeking after shiny things, not giving peace. There is also 'cosmetic' living, the life of hiding, the life of fear, so often because of past mistakes, past sins, things that we feel are unforgivable, but this whole season of Christmas is concerned with hope. Without hope our life has no meaning.

If I may be personal for a moment. There were moments in my early life as a small child when I had no hope. Within a period of 18 months I was to lose my mother by suicide, my grandfather through old age and my father through brain cancer. I was then left with my loving grandmother for whom, though now with God, I have much to thank because never once did she lose hope. I feel in life that it is so important to live for other people as my grandmother did for me.

I write these few words as a Christian. However, Mahatma Gandhi once said that he loved Jesus Christ but he had such problems with Christians because they so often did not reflect the Christ. I have this text of Gandhi above my desk and study it each day. It haunts me as Mr Scrooge was haunted. I see in the baby Jesus the words 'come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest'. So, though my early years were difficult troubled ones, I received much care and love which gave me hope and gave me life. I found the very spirit of Jesus in broken lives.

The followers of Jesus are not always the best reflectors of his message. We are sometimes odd, cranky and slightly weird. We make mistakes, we fail. However, Christmas is all about looking again to the very point of our existence truly to appreciate the gift of every second. We are all of us in need of healing; the patient and the doctor are equal.

As we gaze at the crib God is so infatuated with us He cannot take His eyes off His own. Let us kneel before this scene no matter who we are or what we are. The Christmas story is an urgent reality for today. As a Christian or one who tries to live that title I will be looking and looking at the scene of Christ's birth. I will have my fears, I will have my baggage, even excess baggage, but I know after time spent watching that scene I will come away lighter and that is my prayer for each of us this

Christmas.

Michael Seed

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