Every year, in manses and studies and at the kitchen table, preachers and worship leaders approach Advent with a mixture of joy and trepidation.
Joy, because Christmas is the penultimate Christian festival—each week the excitement builds, every week another candle is lit, every year is pregnant with possibilities—but trepidation, because December 25 after December 25, the person leading the service tries to find something new to say!
Because we’re quite impatient these days, with repetition and slogans and the same old, same old. And we want something real: not some facsimile of Christmas with tinsel branches and limping reindeer; we want the genuine smell of pinus radiata and a champagne breakfast, no last minute defrosted turkey or re-gifted tins of biscuits!
We want the genuine article, the perfect gift: a real Christmas.
We might wrap our presents in brown paper and cotton twine, as if this costs the environment less than glossy a Santa and curling ribbon, but we sneak an envious glance at adverts where someone unwraps several layers of hand-printed paper and finds, nestled in tissue, that perfect thing: proof that this year someone cared enough to choose it and write our name on the label; evidence that someone loves us. In the words of the fabulous advertising campaign that—even while we’re mocking it, makes us smile—because we’re worth it!
On Christmas morning when the beach is calling and the family’s gathering and the presents are a mystery (or definitely feels book-shaped anyway), and after the splendour and celebration of Christmas Eve, we don’t want Christmas Day to be an anticlimax.
We’ve gifted our Oxfam goats or ducks and bought our Conservation diaries, and what we’d like, on Christmas Day, what we really want, is for things to be—perfect. Just like the old days. Something new, but also something familiar.
And that’s what’s so wonderful about the Christmas story, and why preachers penning their reflections approach with trepidation but also with joy: at Christmas, the news is all good. Year after year, the traditional is transformed. There’s been drama and scandal and mystery but finally the child’s delivered safely. Over years, decades, centuries, the story evolves and grows, twists like a streamer and shines along a new star path.
And at its very heart is the thing we want, we need, to hear: You are loved. You are worthy. Your life is the most precious thing. You deserve the best: God’s Child, offspring of deity, Wisdom become flesh, creation personified through an act of loving generosity.
In our wisdom readings, Dorothy Parker’s poem Prayer for a New Mother assumes that Mary knew the things that would come later, and poignantly wishes that—for this day at least—she can spend time with her little one, un-shadowed by future events. And in the contemporary carol, we hear that amazing question: Mary, did you know… when you kiss your little baby you’ve kissed the face of God?
What does it mean for us, to kiss the face of God?
Perhaps it’s to hear Sophia, Wisdom of Creation, now in flesh appearing and to see God in the face of friend and stranger. To hear the angel song that lifts our hearts and makes us wonder how we ever could have forgotten. To hold in our arms, in imagination, that newborn and sense the hurts we absorb from one another, the grudges we hold, the wounded feelings we nurse, washed away by a wave of love we can’t describe and barely comprehend. To feel our dreams born alive, held in hope, wrapped in love. To unite with friends and lovers for peace, and joy and love.
Perhaps kissing the face of God is to walk lightly on the earth, to leave only footprints. When we live with respect for our earth mother Papatūānuku and our sky father Ranginui; share the planet selflessly with all the creatures of forest, sky and sea; respect the atua of river and mountain and city street; when we share breath with other creatures of the earth, and hongi each other—maybe then, with Mary, we kiss the face of God.
Today the Christ is born again, in your manger, under your Christmas tree. Love comes gift-wrapped, hope shines over your garage door, peace is shared at your meal.
And in this shining hour, with this gleaming assurance, we can take a moment to reflect on those other days, the other mornings; the story that features not swaddling cloth but a shroud; the journey that leads through shadow lands, unhappy endings and loveless evenings, and hope exploding like methane in a coal mine.
We pause and recognise that today’s message is really just scene-setting, the set-up shot for the story of a life that ends not in a birth but a shameful, traitor’s death; to betrayal by friends and mocking by the indifferent. No gold or frankincense, but myrrh and vinegar and bitter aloe. The story that leads from Bethlehem to Golgotha; from singing seraphs and startled shepherds, to the place of the skull.
In the silence, a baby cries, a bird sings, and we remember—it doesn’t end there. Just as Christmas doesn’t end in Bethlehem, the Easter story doesn’t end in a borrowed gravesite: it goes on, through the garden and the upper room, to Galilee.
And suddenly angels are singing again, and the star of Bethlehem is shining. Herod is outwitted by wise ones, farmers move their flocks to grassy fields. And near the sea, the fisher women are also giving birth, to babies who will one day form a community around this child we celebrate; a company that will tell and retell their stories, adding a postscript here, a simile there, a metaphor for the reality of their lives.
Already a group is forming, of fishermen and tax assessors and political hopefuls, adulterers and lepers, the blind and the bleeding, the overworked and those bedeviled by illness, the rent boys and the zealots. But also, as the story grows, the healed and respected and released, Pharisees and lawyers, the sellers of purple and Ethiopian diplomats, the Corinthians, Ephesians, Mesopotamians—all, all gathered around a table that’s groaning with veges and stuffing and gravy, pavlova and fruitcake, muscatels, strawberries, bubbly; fishes and loaves enough for all.
And at its heart—the heart of this band of followers, the heart of the story, the heart of our deepest desire—is the gift that’s waiting for us every day: demanding, hungry, restless, embodied love.
Love that cries from its manger, that’s inextricably bound with justice.
Love that humbles and inspires and compels us to care for the earth and its people, to feed its hungry and calm its seas.
Love that transcends its sometimes dubious beginnings.
Love transcending emotion, translated into action.
Love that yearns to be cradled close; to be kissed on its grubby, tear-stained cheek; the most demanding and rewarding gift of all.
This is the Christmas message; the reason we come back to hear it year after year, the words Mary treasured in her heart:
You are worthy.
You are the one to birth a miracle.
You are the gift that needs no label.
You are recipient and giver of this huge, indiscriminate love.
Yours is the face that is kissed by God.
This is our story: familiar, sometimes forgotten or taken for granted, and each year sounding new. So, for the two thousand and umpteenth time: Shalom! Happy Christmas!
Today and every day until we meet again around the manger: Peace be with you!Joy to the world!
Love is born again.
Today, and every day, may you kiss the face of God.
So may it be.
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