The service was part of the excellent community work done at St Stephen's a church with a diverse congregation, and one of the few places in Shepherd's Bush where different communities come together on equal terms.
|St Stephen's Church, Sunday worship|
"We had had a carol service for children with special needs. It was a wonderful occasion. The children doing the Bible readings worked their way slowly through each of the words in the passage but no one in the congregation seemed to mind. One of the children had Downs Syndrome and shared the reading of the passage with her brothers. It was lovely to have children at the center of the service and not to have their parents needing to keep them quiet so that they could join in.
After the service I talked with a mother and knelt to make eye contact with her child. He took my head in his hands and sucked my nose. It was a tender moment with him taking the lead and pleased at what he was doing. I was tentative and unsure of myself but did not want to stop him. It went on for one or two minutes as I waited for him to disengage. He was going to spend his life on the edge of other people conversations and so for that moment I felt that he could do as he wished. I felt very lucky.
The child will be my lodestar through the Christmas season. We in the Church find it easy to bemoan the effects of a consumerist culture on our Christmas celebrations. The greatest single knock out blow delivered to Christianity by a consumerist culture is to see Christmas replace Easter as the main festival of the Christian year. 3.7 million people were reckoned to have logged on for the on line Christmas sales (2013) that began at 12.01am on Christmas day while only 2.5 million (by comparison) went to church later on in the day. It is thought that 66% of the population will be asleep at 4pm on Christmas day. This all means that the Church is operating in a crowded market in trying to make December 25th its’ one showcase day to get its message across. The story is told as if it all happens within a 24 hours period: Mary and Joseph arrive; a stable is found; the baby is born; the shepherds and wise men visit.
The tragedy for the Church is that we give the story away by scripting eternity out of the Bethlehem narrative and offering to society a theology that is more ‘Away in a Manger’ with the little Lord Jesus’ sweet head than ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing’ along with the second person of the Trinity. In Scripture Jesus is no longer a newborn child when the Wise men arrive. They don’t come to Bethlehem until some time after Jesus’ birth. They arrived at a house (rather than a stable) and saw Jesus as a young child. Herod wanted all children under two to be killed. There is also no indication as to how many wise men came to Bethlehem (Matt 2:11 & 16).
It is inevitable that we interpret the baby Jesus through the lenses of childhood with which we are most familiar. The modern notion of childhood is encapsulated in the pictures of the baby Jesus cossetted and protected in pristine clean stable stalls. Childhood is to be nurtured and protected: it is an age graded and gradual progress towards adulthood. The idea that Jesus had to grow gradually into an awareness of his divine status appeals to contemporary notions of authenticity and self-realization but it has a pre-Trinitarian logic of Jesus as subordinate rather than co-equal with God as Father and Holy Spirit.
It is not a notion of childhood that can be mapped on to Jesus who was God in the womb (Lk 1:31 & 35). God chose the time (Gal 4:4) and the place (Mic 5:1) for His birth. Jesus appeared in easy innocence. The baby Jesus would have been akin to the disabled child sucking my nose. He would have had a clear sense of who he was as the world changed around him.
Once, when I was cycling home two young people sped past me on their bicycles. One of them turned round and shouted ‘get an upgrade!’ It is maybe this that the church needs to do with its Christmas message. I will finish my Christmas day sermon with the notices for Easter. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23) not Jesus lying in a manger, even if in our Christmas-Christianity it has become the latter. It is correct to Jesus’s story to run together his birth and death. When Jesus is presented in the Temple Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce her soul (Lk 2:35). It will be like this for many of the parents at our carol service as they watch their children grow. "
Rev Dr Bob Mayo is the vicar of St Stephen and St Thomas Shepherds Bush with St Michael and St George White City. Queries to firstname.lastname@example.org / Follow Bob on twitter at @RevBobMayo / website www.ststephensw12.org