Summary: Carol Service sermon focussing on the disturbing ’bad news’ we prefer to leave out of our cosy Christmas celebrations.
I wonder - have you ever thought how risky Christmas is?
It’s official. RoSPA - The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents - has issued regular warnings about a whole range of hazards just waiting to happen... all of them arising from what you thought were innocent, Christmas-related activities or accessories. On Christmas Day in 2003 more than 6,000 people were taken to hospital, and over the full 12 days of Christmas the number of casualties rose to more than 80,000.
But what can possibly go wrong? What on earth do people manage to do to turn delight into disaster, transforming celebrations into commiserations? Well, the most common accidents are:
People stabbing themselves with scissors while trying to wrap presents, or open them, too hastily.
Then there is a whole range of bruises and broken limbs resulting from children falling off their new bike or rocking horse.
And then a fascinating series of decoration-related accidents, from being stabbed by tree needles or holly, to falling while putting up Christmas cards. Even tinsel is not as harmless as it looks and last year it caused a good many trips and falls. And finally, Christmas tree lights accounted for more than 350 emergency admissions to hospital.
Just a few weeks ago a hospital in Birmingham was the news.
Do you remember the story of the babies Holly and Joseph - the twins abandoned outside the maternity unit at Birmingham’s Heartlands Hospital on a Tuesday morning early in December. It was a risky time for them. Their mother - rumoured to be an unmarried teenage girl - had wrapped them in a sleeping bag and laid them in a cardboard box for a bed. The senior midwife said they were in a stable condition.
And centuries before - the pregnancy of another unmarried teenage girl. A baby wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger for a bed. In a stable condition. But also a very risky time.
There are two episodes in the Christmas story that often get left to one side. We might enjoy our newspapers when they are full of scandal and disasters rather than brimming with good news, but when it comes to Christmas we tend to prefer it the other way round. Tell us the good parts - the ones that make us say "Oh bless" : the stories of shepherds and sheep, of wise men and Christmas presents, of babies and farmyard animals, stories of angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold. But please, leave out the risk. Leave out the disaster, the tragedy, and the heartache... in case it upsets our Christmas.
One tragic episode is the account of what Herod did next.
Every drama needs its villain, and King Herod fits the role perfectly. Historians tell us that Herod had a reputation for cloak-and-dagger politics. At the slightest sniff of a rebellion his opponents were put to the sword, and sometimes their families were killed as well. A hundred Jewish leaders were later killed in connection with his funeral. Herod was so paranoid about retaining his power, and so very aware that his own sons might want to take over his throne, that he had two of them - two of his own sons - put to death. The threat was removed.
The Bible adds another detail to this picture of pain. Despite Herod’s request, and warned by God, the wise men did not return to tell Herod exactly where the baby, the new born king, had been found. They went home via a different route instead. And, once Herod realised he had been outwitted, the tragedy began to unfold. In the words of the carol:
This did Herod sore affray and greviously bewilder, so he gave the word to slay and slew the little childer, and slew the little childer.
Statistically, some 20 households would have been devastated by nightmare of the murder of their baby boys and toddlers under two years old. And something inside us cries out : "Please leave out the risk - the tragedy and the heartache - it might upset our Christmas, and we don’t want to think about reality."
But reality jerks us out of a nostalgic, fairy-tale world of tinsel and turkey and into the pain-filled world kingdoms in conflict. In the red corner we have Herod’s bloody desire to maintain his kingdom at all costs. In the blue corner, heaven invades earth with the promise of an eternal kingdom and everlasting life.
Which leads us into the other easily-overlooked episode.
Like most parents, Mary and Joseph took their child along to the Temple, giving thanks to God for a safe delivery and the privileges of parenthood, trying with integrity to keep the requirements of the religious law.
In that holy place, filled with mystery and majesty, where songs of praise and smoke of incense rose heavenwards, an elderly, saintly man took the baby Jesus in his arms. Simeon sang out praises to God on high, but he also spoke of the impact this child would have. Once again we encounter part of the Christmas story that leaves us uncomfortable.