This Christmas will likely be a difficult one in parts of Cumbria, in the aftermath of the floods, and we remember those communities before God. But in Iceland, tonight is marked by a very different kind of flood, the jólabókaflóð, or ‘Christmas Book Flood’. There, between eighty and ninety percent of books are published for Christmas, with almost everyone being given a new book on Christmas Eve and staying up through the night to read it. A heart-warming, cosy tradition.
Christmas is a time for stories, including all those Christmas films that are repeated year after year on tv. We have favourite stories we can read or watch or listen to again and again, never tiring of them.
My wife and I have a tradition of watching the film Love, Actually. It is a film about love; but it is really a film about choices: good choices, poor choices, habitual choices, painful choices, risky choices, life-changing choices.
In one scene, a young girl is bursting to tell her mother which role she has been given in the school nativity. She proudly announces that she will play the part of the Lobster – indeed, First Lobster. Her mother doesn’t quite know how to respond, and somehow manages to form the question, ‘There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?’ – to which her daughter responds, ‘Duh!’ [lit. of course; everybody knows that!]
The humour lies in our knowing that there were no lobsters at the nativity alongside the shepherds and wise men, the angels and star, the cattle and sheep and donkey, Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper.
Except there was no innkeeper, and no over-full inn. You see, the phrase on which every traditional nativity play hangs, there being no room in the inn, is simply a very poor translation. In Luke’s Gospel, an inn and innkeeper appear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but not in the account of Jesus’ birth. The word translated ‘inn’ in Luke chapter 2 is in fact ‘guest room’ – the same term Luke uses to describe the room in a house in Jerusalem where Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal we know as the Last Supper. But that was a sizeable guest room in a home in the capital city. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary were guests in a home in Bethlehem. They were welcome and honoured guests – after all, Joseph could trace his ancestry to none other than Bethlehem’s most famous son, King David – but nonetheless they were guests in a smaller, provincial home, where the guest room was too small for Mary to give birth in, attended by the village midwives and the women of the household. So Mary gave birth to her son in the main room that served as bedroom to the family and shelter to their animals at night, and living room by day. Afterwards, Jesus was washed and wrapped in linen strips and laid to rest in one of the mangers, a confined and warm space, an ideal crib. And there the shepherds will find him, and all just as it ought to be.
I tell you this not to take away the wonder of Christmas, not to pour cold water on memories of childhood and children and grandchildren, not to throw out the carols, but because it is the stories we tell over and over that shape us.
We have told the story of Jesus’ birth as a story of rejection, of God coming into the world and being largely ignored at best. And the more we tell that story, the more it shapes us to expect of other people and of ourselves that they, that we, will reject or ignore God. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you like.
But Luke tells us a story of welcome, a story of God’s long-awaited coming to his people, of God dwelling in the midst of his people, at the heart of ordinary lives. And when we start to tell this story, and to tell it again and again, the story shapes us for welcoming - welcoming one another, welcoming God – and for wonder, shared between us, at God’s sheer goodness.
So tonight let us stay up telling stories, as the shepherds did, of good news for all people. Stories of a God who has not abandoned us but who came to us, and who comes to us today; who is here in our midst, in the bread and the wine of this holy night, and in the gift-giving of the morning, and the gathering around the table for Christmas dinner and then falling asleep in front of the telly later on. God with us.
That is a story I never tire of hearing, or telling; of sharing with family and friends; of shouting from the rooftops. Happy Christmas! May it be filled with welcome and wonder, more and more, year upon year. And may it shape our rejoicing and our mourning, our treasured memories and our deepest pain; in joy and in peace, amen.