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An article written by Daniel Bennett, Head of Religious Education and Director of Christian Life.

I want briefly to reflect on the meeting of the ordinary and the extraordinary in the Christmas story and also, a little, the importance of music and memory.

Pope Francis, in his homily at Christmas Midnight Mass in Rome, began by reflecting on the reading from Luke’s Gospel, which Alice Wong read for us in our Carol Service last term, which starts with Caesar Augustus calling a census or register of all people under his rule – probably for tax purposes.

The Pope started:

“A census of the whole earth”. This was the context in which Jesus was born. While the emperor numbers the world’s inhabitants, God enters it almost surreptitiously. … None of the powerful take notice of him: only a few shepherds, relegated to the margins of social life. He does not burst on the scene with limitless power, but descends to the narrow confines of our lives. He does not shun our frailties, but makes them his own.

…He does not save us by pushing a button, but draws near us, in order to change our world from within.

…He makes himself close, tender and compassionate, for this is God’s style: closeness, compassion, tenderness.

Representations of the birth of Jesus, in churches, art galleries, and on some Christmas cards often carry a symbolic grandeur – the starlight or beams from heaven, the shining angels, often the somewhat incongruous royal blue, purple robes of Mary the mother of Jesus, not really looking as if she has been in labour for however long. Come Epiphany at the weekend, we can add in the royal robes of the noble visitors and their rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here Luke and Matthew’s gospels seem to have a more symbolic or mythical quality. Many people celebrating Christmas may see it as little more than a fairy tale.

But, strip away the symbolic decoration, and Jesus’ birth is in the context of a very human story. It is one we share – all of us. Everyone of us has had that experience – though we may not remember it of course – we too were all born of our mothers.

It is a human story that continues right this minute around the world as we are here – children being born into the world. Some in hospital, some at home, some long hoped for, some may be a surprise or even seem an inconvenience, some will be born today amid the rubble of Gaza. The Christian story – the extraordinary narrative of God-is-with-us – is found in the ordinariness and beauty and messiness of a human family. Even looking ahead to Epiphany, a visit from well-wishers and gifts are not that unusual – though the everyday narrative usually plays out with cuddly toys or board books or baby-grows rather than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.   

As we cycled home the day his school broke up for Christmas, my youngest son, having had class parties and fun activities for the end of term, was singing that 1970s Slade song “So here it is Merry Christmas…” and saying he couldn’t get it out of his head as it had been playing all day. I suggested he try finding something else to sing out loud or in his head to help get rid of it. “But I don’t want to get it out of my head yet.” He said. “Really, why on earth not?” I asked incredulous. His reply was something like – because it helps me feel and remember how good and fun today was.

The Wednesday before Christmas we had a reunion party at school with about 60 former students who left St Mary’s in the last 5 years or so. Among many lovely conversations about what people had been doing and plans for the future, I was talking with a group of 5 or 6 ex-students when one of them asked about our end of term carol service. She said that she wasn’t religious and it didn’t perhaps mean that much to her at the time but that on one return visit to Cambridge with a friend from her university she felt she had to go into OLEM – the big church where the carol service took place – to show her friend and to remember. Another alumna in the same group then responded, “I know what you mean,” and related how on returning to Cambridge once she had passed the church and, remembering the carol services, had gone in and had been very moved. I think she expressed it as “I sort of started crying but didn’t know why.”

In Luke’s gospel we read:

The angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you good news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”

Perhaps what I said before is wrong. Maybe the important message of Christmas is not just to look for the ordinary in these extraordinary events and narratives but to be aware of the extraordinary in the ordinariness of our lives.  Shepherds called by Angels – hurrying to find the child Jesus. Kings or wise men following a star. Where are we being called or led? Where should we be following? Am I sometimes failing to notice angels and guiding stars – whether real or metaphorical – in my life, passing them by each day without a thought or second glance. Angel voices being drowned out by other concerns and disturbances… the angels that sang with joy when you and I were born – I wonder if we could hear them back then. Just occasionally now being moved by the beauty of the sound or the clarity of the call.

Near the end of the carol service last term, Lynn in the U6th read beautifully for us Anne Weems poem Kneeling in Bethlehem:

It’s not over, this birthing, 

There are always newer skies 

Into which God can throw stars. 


When we begin to think 

That we can predict the Advent of God, 

That we can box the Christ 

In a stable in Bethlehem, 

That’s just the time that God will be born 

In a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe. 


Those who wait for God 

Watch with their hearts and not their eyes, 

Listening, always listening, 

For angel words. 

To finish, let’s return to Pope Francis’s Christmas night sermon:

So why remain caught up in your troubles? Like the shepherds, who left their flocks, leave behind the prison of your sorrows and embrace the tender love of the God who became a child. Put aside your masks and your armour; cast your cares on him and he will care for you. He became flesh; he is looking not for your achievements but for your open and trusting heart. In him, you will rediscover who you are: a beloved son or daughter of God. … The Lord was born to light up your life; his eyes are alight with love for you. We have difficulty believing this, but God’s eyes are alight with love for us.