A powerful and thought provoking reflection from Rev Julian Hamilton offered at REWIND 2020
14 December 2020
The beginnings of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament are all different. The
beautiful stable scene which we have here at the front of the mansion house remains an
invention of the Christmas card … it is not depicted as a snow topped stable full of family
with a newborn, shepherds and wise men gazing up with a star hanging above the stable –
never mind the smiling very clean animals in ‘any’ of the four gospels.
My favourite addition BTW, the snow. In the Middle East. For years I have quietly either sniggered or been exasperated by Christmas depictions of snow in Bethlehem - but then I began to run human engagement programs between Palestinians, Israeli’s, British and Irish young people, and in conjunction with such was on a skype call (remember when Skype was a thing?) to a friend in Bethlehem to talk arrangements and he told me it’s very cold here, it's snowing. I told him, it’s Bethlehem, it doesn’t snow there! He said, let me move my computer to the window so you can see – Oh my – it was beautiful … and snowing!!! So, OK, I might give the snow on the Christmas card a gentle pass!
But the Gospels are all wonderfully different in how their beginnings …
John – the philosopher and only non-Jewish writer in the New Testament … he has no cradle scene … he has lofty grandeur of the WORD (the Christ) being present to the world from the very beginning. His is a flowing chronicle of a divine presence which has always been nearby but now through proclamation and deliberate descent has come to dwell amongst his people. John is writing for a new audience - a Greek thinking and speaking audience, and so he writes accordingly with poetry and prose to begin his account.
Mark also has no stable scene. His opening, his beginning, is straight-in there with an almost
political declaration of here is the ‘Good News’ – deliberately using language familiar with
the government of the day to make his point. Good news, ‘Euangelion’ would have been a
familiar phrase as a proclamation from the Empire that the emperor is returning to Rome
with victory under his belt – another tribe / country has been defeated and Rome is
supreme. Here the Good News, the PR machine proclaimed, your Emperor has brought us
Mark seems to be straight to the point – that’s not Good news … you want Good news, well
here it is … that emperor you think is King … he’s not it at all …
Matthew – another varied beginning to the story of Jesus. Matthew writing as a Jew for a
primarily Jewish audience firmly places the narrative his writing will go on to outline in a
Jewish setting, beginning with a long chronology of the birth of Christ – placing Christ firmly
in his Jewish ancestry. Here a chapter later we at least do have a stable scene with wise men… alas there are no shepherds, and it’s not a stable, but there is a baby Jesus! Matthew has wise men bring gifts fit for a king – yes, the Kings come to visit a new king.
And Luke – the fourth of four different beginnings to the story of Jesus. After a lengthy
prologue setting Jesus firmly into his Jewish narrative, this time with a story of an old man in
the Temple having a vision rather than a lengthy family tree, Luke has Jesus born and laid in
a manger for there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. Yes, not so much a stable,
more a cave, the Christmas card writers take those words that Jesus was laid in a manger
and go all out with it! But here, we do have shepherds! Disturbed from their manual
nightshift work on the local hillsides by angels declaring Good News, and traveling to find
the holy child.
I love the variation of the Gospels – I love the contrasting hopes and dreams contained in
their beginnings. The lofty all-embracing philosophy of John, the political edge, almost
dangerous subversion of Mark, the deliberate placing into context of Matthew … and
especially I love Luke.
I love Luke because his beginning has this history defining narrative first proclaimed, to the
manual night shift workers. The shepherds.
The shepherds – the often mistrusted and set-aside shepherds who did the jobs that no-one
else wanted. The ones who worked nightshift so that the economy and the religious social
practices could continue. If they did not look after the sheep, how would the people eat,
how would they sacrifice at the Temple or in their homes? They were the often ignored
even maligned lower working classes of their day, and they are the first to hear of the
message Luke is bringing through his writing of the story of Jesus.
Luke wants us to know, this beginning is for everyone. And to prove it, he writes that the
first receivers of the joy are the ones some folks would treat as no-one.
With every beginning is an ending. In all four Gospels, the old order is ending. The beginning
of the story of Jesus, ends a story where God is somehow absent and above. For here is
God, present in flesh.
It ends a story where God is victorious through violence and victory, for here is God, in an
animal feeding trough.
It ends a story that God is distant and to be feared – for here is God, wrapped up in human
skin held in human arms.
It ends a story where God wields mighty power over – because here is God vulnerable,
gurgling, cooing, struggling for breath and sight and touch.
This is love come down. Emmanuel, God with us.
The world as we knew it in 2019, has ended. It’s gone, and it will not come back. Old
certainties, habits, practices and ways of functioning – you know – ‘how the world works’ –
that world has ended. And we are in a new place.
The certainties of the world we knew a year ago will not return, we have new pratices and
habits to acquire. Some of us have experienced deep deep loss this year in tragic ways.
Some of us have been denied the connections which keep us human. So so many have
sacrificed, and so so many have gone beyond their duty just to keep us afloat. And it hasn’t
just been ‘us’ – it’s been ‘them’ – a truly global narrative, that has stretched to encompass
princes, presidents and prime ministers, as it has encompassed the destitute, diminished
And now, fittingly through the lights of Hanukkah as we gaze at the coming light of
Christmas, we see light at the end of the tunnel brought to us by science and innovation and
massive endeavor … but we know, when we leave the tunnel, everything will be different
because of what we have traveled through. The world as known has ended – but – endings
and beginnings go together … where something ends, something new begins, emerges,
Maybe, just maybe, this year, the new beginning seen in the Christ-child of Bethlehem can
inspire us toward new beginnings of all kinds. We have a new world emerging … how do we
want it to be? In the Christian tradition, we are invited to witness the light and life of
newness in the Christ-child, and carry that life and light into the world – bringing joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control … bringing love.
Let love be our new beginning. For God Is With Us.