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An 'X-rated' Christmas

Fr Neil Kelley, Christmas Midnight, 2011

There’s a story of a boy who goes into a church with a stone in his hand. He looks up at the Altar and above it sees the words “Glory to God in the Highest”. He throws a stone at the window and as it smashes the glass, a letter is removed. The words now read “Glory to God in the High St”.
That story is attributed to someone in the Iona Community; a story intended, I’m sure, to bring home the fact that the message of Christmas is not just for those in a church building but those ‘out there’ too – in the High Street, the Highways and Byways.

Glory to God in the High Street goes back even further. C. S. Lewis used to talk about ‘Glory to God in the High Street’ and the ‘spirit of X-mass’ rather than the spirit of Christmas. To what extent does our pre-Christmas behaviour fit well with a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, with no home, as a refugee. There's something that doesn't connect between the commercialism of our Christmas and the real bare simplicity of the story of the Birth of Jesus.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is just about spending – for many Christmas starts in early November and as the weeks go by the shops get busier and more and more are tempted to spend money they do not have. They average cost of the family Christmas Dinner, we are told by the Daily Mail, is now £142. Something like £800+ is spent on the average family Christmas presents. For what? What do most people think they are doing when they spend that money? Glory to God in the High Street indeed!

But going back to C. S. Lewis and his “X”-mass. I wonder how many of you are tempted, particularly in text messages, to leave Christ out and put an X in instead? Happy Xmas we say in our cards. Do you give Christ his full name, or do you abbreviate it?
If removing the letter ‘E’ creates a new meaning to a well-known church phrase, I wonder what the letter X conjures up?

Perhaps the ‘X’ Factor is the most obvious – though I can’t admit to being a fan of it. I’m too old! In mathematics X is often used to represent unknowns; we talk of Generation X. Many text messages conclude with an X to denote a kiss; many of our letters and cards include anything from one to 4 or more x’s, depending on how much you like or fancy someone!

And the use of the letter X can denote something shocking and awful. X-rated films are not what you will be probably watching with the family tomorrow afternoon! At least, I hope not!

If you had to use film classification, what label would you give Christmas and the Christmas story? I’m sure you would say U – Universal, for all. That is indeed what the message of Christ in the Crib is – he is born of the Virgin Mary for the whole of humanity and for our salvation.
So we might place a U on the outside notice board next to the 6pm Christingle Service. It is for all; no matter how young or old. And our congregation reflects that. It is a happy service with the message very much geared to the young though applicable to all.

How might we categorize Midnight Mass? Perhaps 12A?  It’s not that you need to be 12 to come, but very much younger than that and you may not be awake at midnight. And for safety, we wouldn’t expect a 12 year old to come to this service on their own. Accompanied by an adult most definitely. 12A it is.
And tomorrow at 11? Back to the U, I guess. No reason why children might not come unaccompanied.

Unlike those unpleasant films, there’s nothing X-rated about our Christmas Services.

That’s not quite true..... The danger is that we concentrate so much on this universal message to all ages, dressed up all cosily in the Crib, that the full horror of it escapes us.

For if you were to come to Church on Boxing Day – more properly St. Stephen’s Day – then the message is most definitely X-rated. We are confronted with bloodshed and martyrdom as we recall how Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the first to witness to Christ by being put to death. Perhaps not a U or 12A; being killed for the faith isn’t something we would want to focus on at a children’s service. But Christianity is of course, X-rated. It’s shocking, it’s gruesome, it’s costly, it’s painful. Turn it round 45° and that X has become a Cross. And that baby placed in the manger is to be nailed upon it until his life expires. That is the full, adult, reality of Christmas. A far cry from ‘Glory to God in the High Street’ and the carols round the Tree. This is the grown up message. G. K. Chesterton said: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and not tried.”

Many people might indeed be dreaming of a white Christmas; but for many more there is the acute loneliness of the “Blue Christmas” about which Elvis Presley sang. There is the horror of war, still – despite what Mr. Obama says. Christmas won’t exactly be merry for many people in Christchurch, New Zealand, for those servicemen and women in Afghanistan. And many, when Christmas is over, will face the awful horror of how to pay for it!

The un-edited version of the Christmas story is depicted in T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” when, the wise men returning home, the question is asked:

....were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

As we come to the Altar tonight, we see birth and death. We receive birth and death. For each time the mass is celebrated “We proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection until he comes again.” The Blessed Sacrament we receive is a broken body; broken on the cross for broken people in a broken world. That is why a cross is always placed above, on or near an Altar. We receive new life from God in the Holy Sacrament, but life given at a cost.

T. S. Eliot speaks of an alien people clutching their gods. The frantic mad shopping speaks of a world of folk worshipping the gods of fashion, consumerism, glamour and wealth. Glory to God in the High Street.

Eliot’s wise men returned as changed people. Their eyes had been opened to reality. But how will we return to our homes tonight? Will our encounter with birth and death change us in any way? Will we be strengthened in our discipleship to follow the Lord more faithfully, even unto death, as St. Stephen did?
True discipleship may be bitter sweet; but the love we glimpse in the Crib tonight is the love freely available to us and the whole world. And it is a love which continues beyond the grave, thank God.

Will you allow God to dwell in your heart this Christmas and will you do all that is physically in your power to enable him to be in the hearts, not just of the brothers and sisters whom we cannot see, but of our brothers and sisters who live around us?

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

Will your Christmas be ‘sealed with a kiss?’ This year make your Christmas X-rated. And if that ‘x’ is short-hand for a kiss – just how much love will you return to God and share with those around you?

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