As we remember the birth of the homeless Saviour in the manger…
Let us commit ourselves to make room for Jesus this year, in our lives and in our homes…
especially as he comes to us in his many disguises. (Source: Shane Claiborne)

Note: COCU relates to a way of coding for the lectionary year.

Palestinian artist: Ibrahim Hazimeh

Readings Year B
Isaiah 52:7-10
The joy of seeing the messenger of good news, who announces peace and the reign of God, and of knowing God’s protection and care.
Psalm 98
A song of celebration of the God who comes to save God’s people, and who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and justice.
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
God has spoken to us through God’s Son, who is the likeness of God’s being, who has
been appointed as ruler over all things because of his love of goodness, and whose rule is just and eternal.
John 1:1-14
The eternal Word who created the world has come into the world as light shining in darkness and has given life – as children of God – to all who believed in him and received him.
(RCL reading summaries by John van de Laar, Sacredise)

Readings Year C
Isaiah 52:7-10 The messenger who brings good news
Psalm 98 O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things
Hebrews 1:1-4 in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son
John 1:1-14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us

“Jesus was a Jew, and precisely because he was a Jew, he spoke of peace, of compassion, of care for the poor, of the centrality of Torah and of the value of all people.
To bring the world a bit more grace and truth, it would be good if Jesus’ followers would recognize and affirm the Jewish tradition that Jesus embraced rather than seek to make Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad.” Read Five Christmas sermon blunders here
— Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine

Washington Post article (2021) by Michael Gerson, ‘This Christmas hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer’. Text reproduced at end of this post if link doesn’t open. 

“You are deeply, deeply loved,
just as you are,
forgiven, loved and challenged to be
the very best you can be.
So I’m speaking to you in the only way I know how –
from a stable,
in a child born into poverty,
soon to grow to maturity,
born to show you,
in a human life,
the love of God.”
(Source: Candles & Conifers, edited by Ruth Burgess

If you came to this place expecting a tame story,
you came to the wrong place.
If you came for a story that does not threaten you,
you came for a different story than the one we tell.
If you came to hear of the coming of a God
who only showed up so that you could have a nice day
with your loved ones,
then you came for a God whom we do not worship here.
For even a regular baby is not a tame thing.
And goodness that cannot threaten complacency and evil
is not much good at all,
And a God who would choose to give up power and invincibility
to become an infant for you,
certainly didn’t do it just so you could have dinner.
If you came because you think unwed teenage mothers
are some of the strongest people in the world.
If you came because you think that the kind of people who work third
shift doing stuff you’d rather not do might attract an angel’s
attention before you, snoring comfortably in your bed, would.
If you came because you think there are wise men and women to be
found among undocumented travelers from far lands and
that they might be able to show you God.
If you came to hear a story of tyrants trembling
while heaven comes to peasants.
If you came because you believe that God loves the animals
as much as the people
and so made them the first witnesses to the saving of the world.
If you came for a story of reversals
that might end up reversing you.
If you came for a tale of adventure and bravery,
where strong and gentle people win,
and the powerful and violent go down to dust,
where the rich lose their money but find their lives
and the poor are raised up like kings.
If you came to be reminded that God loves you too much
to leave you unchanged.
If you came to follow the light
even if it blinds you.
If you came for salvation and not safety,
then, ah, my friends,
you are precisely in the right place.
So what are you here for?”
(Source: Quinn G. Caldwell, All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Abingdon Press, 2014)
Artwork by Anthony VanArsdale for the National Black Catholic Congress

Song: Oh God today has a human face
Oh God today has a human face
blanket wrapping grubby grace
heaven’s child in earth’s embrace
God today has a human face

hope today has a human face
new life born in dusty shed
promise crying to be fed
hope today has a human face

peace today has a human face
war zone pierced by infant’s cry
from Baghdad to Palestine
peace today has a human face

joy today has a human face
angels pointing down our street
heaven swirling at my feet
joy today has a human face

love today has a human face
prodigals are welcome home
refugees no longer roam
love today has a human face

earth today sees heaven’s face
mystery present in this place
turning point of time and space
earth today sees heaven’s face
(Source: Craig Mitchell, music downloadable here)

Glossies cascade from my letter-box,
a mind-numbing coloured cornucopia,
each dazzling gift a bargain.
The first-ever Christmas gift was found
wrapped in straw and non-disposable nappies,
in Palestine, at the census,
stamped with a star, but posted beyond the stars,
marked ‘No Commercial Value’, signed, with a cross,
‘From heaven to earth, with love.’
(Source: Michael and Honor Thwaites Heritage Association)

…love beyond anything we can grasp or comprehend
love without limit and without end
love that is unearned and unearnable
love that has within it the ever-present possibility of forgiveness, healing, of new beginnings
love that is for all, yet leans especially towards the despised, the broken, the forgotten
love that holds each one of us, even when – especially when – we can no longer hold anything
love that broke its own silence, that uttered its own Word,
that came among us full of grace and truth…
[from a Christmas card]

An Australian Aboriginal Christmas Prayer
Father of the Dreaming
Your enduring love has sustained us for over 60,000 years.
Your presence, as the guiding light in our
lives has ensured that we,
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia continue to walk on our land in Your footsteps.

During the Christmas Season we sing of
our gratitude for the example of Your life,
which gives us new meaning to our lives.
We acknowledge and we are comforted by our companionship
and Your promise to be with us,
Your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As we celebrate Christmas Day may
wonder take hold of us again,
opening our eyes to the marvels of Your creation and,
renewing our desire to imitate your gentleness and peace.
We ask this in Your name, Jesus,
in whose life we rejoice today. Amen.

Artwork: Nativity by Australian Aboriginal artist Duwun Lee

A Christmas blessing
May you find joy in perfect and imperfect harmonies. May angels witness your silence between sounds. And may you look to the heavens for a star to guide you to a home full of love and promise.
(Source: Facebook post by Moira Deslandes, 2017)

Christmas benediction
Like a tender child in your arms,
may the nearness of God warm you.
Like the awe of the shepherds,
may the love that unites us all enfold you.
Like the song of the angels,
may the promise of our belovedness give you hope.
Like the wonder of Mary and Joseph,
may God’s presence awaken us to our siblings in the poor.
Like the radiance of the star over Bethlehem,
may the light of God’s love shine in you,
give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
and guide your feet into the way of peace. Amen. 
(Source: Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light)

Michael Frost debunks the myths of Christmas
Keeping historically inaccurate and culturally anachronistic religious displays in shopping malls isn’t a victory for the gospel at all.
No A-Frame Stable
Jesus wasn’t born in a little stable constructed of twigs and peat moss. Most likely, he was born in the home of Joseph’s relatives in the section of the house where animals were brought in at night. Mary was probably attended to by the female members of Joseph’s extended family, strangers to her, but nurturing and experienced in the matter of childbirth. Rather than two lone parents in an isolated stable, the holy family were probably surrounded by fussing women and awkward men.
No animals and no donkey
Sure, there’s that line in Away in a Manger that goes “the cattle were lowing” but none of the gospels mention any animals. If Jesus was born in the part of the house where animals were housed at night, they would obviously have been shooed out for his birth. But more concerning for nativity lovers is the news that there’s no reference to a donkey either. Say what? No cute donkey? It has been conjectured that Mary and Joseph must made their journey to Bethlehem on a donkey because it was cheaper than traveling in a caravan, the far more common and much safer option. But the Bible is silent on how exactly they got to Bethlehem.
No Star
I know, this is hard for some of you. But the magi don’t arrive in Bethlehem until a year or two after Jesus birth, so the star doesn’t appear until they begin their strange journey from the east.
No Three Wise Kings
While we’re on the magi, they would have to be the most bizarre characters in the gospels. But who were they? Why did they come? What were they doing? They were eastern holy men, astrologers who divined the stars (although that was frowned upon by the Jews), who consorted with Herod (and later betrayed him), and who arrived in time to present the toddler Jesus with exotic gifts. But there’s no reason to believe there were only three of them. There’s nothing to suggest they were kings. Their names were not Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. And there’s no basis for dressing them in silk robes and strange turbans.
No angel on the roof
Well, there were angels, just not at the actual birth of Christ. The gospels recount that a host of angels appeared to shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem. But there’s no mention that they schlepped into town with the terrified shepherds. So, those depictions of one or a handful of androgynous beings fluttering around the stable roof – yeah, that didn’t happen. What did happen was way more amazing. Luke’s gospel says “a multitude of the heavenly host” appeared, praising God. The Greek word for “host” is stratia which alludes to the stars in the sky. How many does that make? It’s impossible to know but it could be suggesting the night sky was filled with angels! That’s mind-boggling.
No silent white-skinned, blue-eyed baby boy
You know the line, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? Yeah, again, unlikely. He could have screamed his lungs out like a banshee for all we know. And we can be pretty sure he wasn’t the porcelain-skinned cherub in those shopping mall nativity scenes either. All of which leads me to my original question: which Christ are you trying to keep in Christmas exactly? If it’s the eight pound, six ounce, newborn baby Jesus from Talladega Nights (“don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent”) you’re not fighting a war on Christmas. You’re championing tradition and the symbols of the ancient European nativity.
Jesus came to free us from enslavement to the things of this world. Those things include the commercialism and excess so celebrated in malls, themselves great temples to materialism. For his followers, Jesus is our king, our rescuer, our friend and our hope. Why do we so vehemently defend our right to set up shrines to him that in no way resemble the actual facts of his birth?

All of You Who Walked In Darkness
MENDELSSOHN with Refrain (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

All of you who walked in darkness who have known the fear of night —
Now rejoice and sing with gladness; come and see the wondrous light!
God has turned your tears to songs, lifting burdens, righting wrongs.
God sent us a tiny boy bringing hope and peace and joy.
In one little baby’s birth, God knelt down to love the earth.

Still Christ comes to save God’s people, still he comes to those oppressed.
To the folks who toil and struggle, God has sent the very best.
To the young and to the old, to the homeless, tired and cold,
To the lost, to those who mourn, to the world, a child is born.
In one little baby’s birth, God knelt down to love the earth.

In this time of celebration, may we show what life can be,
As we care for God’s creation, as we serve the Prince of Peace.
Seeking justice everywhere, lifting burdens others bear,
May we gladly serve and pray — knowing why we live this way:
In one little baby’s birth, God knelt down to love the earth.

Biblical Reference: Isaiah 9:2-7
Tune: Felix Mendelssohn, 1840
Text: Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email: New Hymns:

When Mary Hugged Her Newborn Son
TALLIS’ CANON (“All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night”)

When Mary hugged her newborn son,
She pondered all that God had done.
Could she know all her child would be —
The life he’d bring humanity?

When shepherds heard the angel’s joy,
They went to find that baby boy.
Could they see there in Bethlehem
A friend to outcasts just like them?

When wise men came with gifts to share,
They saw young Jesus playing there.
Could they behold in one so small
God’s gift most precious of them all?

God, make us faithful, humble, wise
To know that Jesus changes lives.
May we be open to the way
That he would change our lives this day.

Biblical References: Luke 2:19, 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-12
Tune: Thomas Tallis, 1561 
Text: Copyright © 2011 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email: New Hymns:

Hymn: A story of justice, peace and joy (tune: God rest you merry gentlemen)

God give you comfort, gentle folk,
disturb you on the Way; 
remember Jesus, child of Love,
was born on Christmas day 
to save us all from tyranny,
for we have gone astray. 

O, story of justice, peace and joy, peace and joy.
O, story of justice, peace and joy. 

From Spirit, Wisdom, Creator,
the blessed angels came,
revealing to the shepherds: 
the world has changed today! 
A child is born, to Mary, 
the Son of God, by name. 

O, story of justice, peace and joy, peace and joy.
O, story of justice, peace and joy. 

Now to our God sing praises,
all you within this place,
and with true loving kindness
each other do embrace;
thus Christ is born, and born again – 
we need his light to blaze. 

O, story of justice, peace and joy, peace and joy.
O, story of justice, peace and joy. 

Hymn: “In the Darkness Shines the Splendour”
In the darkness shines the splendour
of the Word who took our flesh,
welcoming, in love’s surrender,
death’s dark shadow at his crèche.
Bearing every human story, Word made flesh reveals his glory.

Light of nations, veiled in history,
born of woman’s flesh and blood,
calling to the depths of mystery
restless hearts that seek the good.
Healing every human story, Word made flesh reveals his glory.

Broken bread, sustaining us in sorrow,
wine poured out to toast our joy;
exodus and new tomorrow,
life’s full promise to enjoy!
Gladdening every human story, Word made flesh reveals his glory.

All God’s people, sing in jubilation
of the birth that sets us free,
telling of the revelation:
Jesus, God’s epiphany.
Celebrate the human story!
Word made flesh reveals our glory.”
(Words: Bernadette Gasslein; Tune: “Once in Royal David’s City” by Henry John Gauntlett)
(Source: Words: (c) Sarah Agnew 2018; Tune: God Rest You Merry Gentlemen)

Washington Post article by Michael Gerson (2021)
‘This Christmas hope may seem elusive. But despair is not the answer’.
Many in our country have lost the simple confidence that better days are ahead, for a variety of understandable reasons. There are the coronavirus’s false dawns, followed by new fears. There are rising prices and empty store shelves, as if in Soviet Romania. There is Afghanistan, descending into man-made catastrophe. There are increases in urban violence. And deeply embedded racial injustice. And an environment buckling under terrible strains. Everything seems crying out in chaotic chorus: Things are not getting better.
That spirit possesses our politics. The right sees a country in cultural decline, stripped of its identify and values. The left fears we are moving toward a new American authoritarianism. Both are ideologies of prophesied loss. In a society, such resentments easily become septic. So many otherwise irenic people seem captured by the politics of the clenched fist. A portion seem to genuinely wish some of their neighbors humiliation and harm.
Under such circumstances, it can feel impossible to sustain hope. Yet from a young age, if we are lucky, we are taught that hope itself sustains. It is one of the most foundational assurances of childhood for a parent to bend down and tell a crying child: It is okay. It will be all better. We have an early, instinctual desire to know that trials are temporary, that wounds will heal and all will be well in the end. When a child abuser violates such a promise, it is the cruelest possible betrayal. When young people and adults lose confidence in the possibility of a better day, it can result in the diseases and ravages of despair: drug addiction leading to overdose, alcoholism leading to liver failure, depression leading to suicide.
A columnist living through an appropriate column illustration should probably disclose it. I have been dealing with cancer for a long time. For most of that period, the cancer was trying to kill me without my feeling it. It was internal and theoretical. Now I have reached a different and unpleasant phase, in which the cancer is trying to kill me and making me feel it — the phase when life plans become unknitted and the people you love watch you be weak.
I am not near death and don’t plan to be soon. But there is a time in the progress of a disease such as mine when you believe that you will recover, that you will get better. And I have passed the point when that hope is credible. Now, God or fate has spoken. And the words clank down like iron gates: No, it will not be okay. You will not be getting better.
Such reflections flow naturally when you are writing from the antiseptic wonderland of the holiday hospital ward. But nearly every life eventually involves such tests of hope. Some questions, even when not urgent, are universal: How can we make sense of blind and stupid suffering? How do we live with purpose amid events that scream of unfair randomness? What sustains hope when there is scant reason for it?
The context of the Nativity story is misunderstood hope. The prophets and Jewish people waited for centuries in defiant expectation for the Messiah to deliver Israel from exile and enemies. This was essentially the embodied belief that something different and better was possible — that some momentous divine intervention could change everything.
But the long-expected event arrived in an entirely unexpected form. Not as the triumph of politics and power, but in shocking humility and vulnerability. The world’s desire in a puking infant. Angelic choirs performing for people of no social account. A glimpse of glory along with the smell of animal dung. Clearly, we are being invited by this holy plot twist to suspend our disbelief for a moment and consider some revolutionary revision of spiritual truth.
Or at least this is what the story says, which we try to interpret beneath limited, even conflicting texts. No matter how we react to the historicity of each element, however, the Nativity presents the inner reality of God’s arrival.
He is a God who goes to ridiculous lengths to seek us.
He is a God who chose the low way: power in humility; strength perfected in weakness; the last shall be first; blessed are the least of these.
He is a God who was cloaked in blood and bone and destined for human suffering — which he does not try to explain to us, but rather just shares. It is perhaps the hardest to fathom: the astounding vulnerability of God.
And he is a God of hope, who offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes. He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burden of our desires, and live in expectation of God’s unfolding purposes, until all his mercies stand revealed.
There is an almost infinite number of ways other than angelic choirs that God announces his arrival. I have friends who have experienced a lightning strike of undeniable mission, or who see God in the deep beauty of nature, or know Jesus in serving the dispossessed.
For me, such assurances do not come easy or often. Mine are less grand vista than brief glimpse behind a curtain. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” she wrote of an “incandescent” light that can possess “the most obtuse objects” and “grant / A brief respite from fear.” Plath concluded: “Miracles occur, / If you care to call those spasmodic / Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again, / The long wait for the angel. / For that rare, random descent.”
Christmas hope may well fall in the psychological category of wish fulfillment. But that does not disprove the possibility of actually fulfilled wishes. On Christmas, we consider the disorienting, vivid evidence that hope wins. If true, it is a story that can reorient every human story. It means that God is with us, even in suffering. It is the assurance, as from a parent, as from an angel, as from a savior: It is okay. And even at the extreme of death (quoting Julian of Norwich): “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Rev Sandy Boyce is a Uniting Church in Australia Minister (Deacon). This blog may be a help to people planning worship services.
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