A sermon given at the 8am BCP Eucharist on Christmas Morning 2022, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In the movie version of Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen the story is related from the Babylonian Talmud of a king whose son had gone astray. The son had been told, ‘Return to your father’; but the son replied that he could not. The king then sent a messenger to his son with the message, ‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.’

Such beautiful and poignant words – ‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.’

The story doesn’t reveal the cause of the estrangement but implies that each had, to that point, felt justified in maintaining the distance between themselves . We do not know whether, by his ‘no’, the son may have harboured some deep sense of perceived injury and complaint against his father which prevented him from taking that first step; or whether he may have felt a deep shame which he found himself unable to transcend. Fortunately, for the son, the father’s love for him exceeded their damaged relationship. He wanted his son to come home; but knew that wishing for this was not sufficient. The story implied that the son had moved away from the father and so, by rights, the son should have made the first move towards reconciliation. The son had said no to such a move. So, it was left to the father to find a way where they might be reconciled. His answer was to say:

‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.’

Isn’t this a wonderful summary of the Christmas story?

In Genesis, we read of Adam and Eve being turned out from the Garden of Eden, this was clearly a metaphor for humanity moving away from God through history. In the Christmas story, God left his metaphorical Garden of Eden and became human in the person of his Son and sought humanity out.

But there is more to this Christmas story than Jesus breaking into humanity’s sad history; this Christmas story is also deeply personal for everyone who has ever or will ever live. Jesus’ version of the words from the Talmud story were:

Come unto me all that are heavy laden. [Matthew 11:28]

In other words, Jesus asks that we but take the first steps and, if we do, he will then come to meet us. The reality of Christ’s birth then has been important not just historically but, at an individual level, it has been important for each and every one of us. The point I am making is that God not only broke the impasse historically between himself and humanity two thousand years ago with the birth of his son Jesus; he also breaks it each Christmas as we celebrate ‘Emmanuel – God with us’. By so doing, he echoes those words of the king in the Babylonian Talmud – ‘I will meet you the rest of the way’.

But for this to be so, we need to ‘come back to (him) as far as (we) can.’

In other words, through history God has asked of humanity, and in our own present, he continues to ask of us that we come back as far as we are able. It is question which should remain with us throughout the year, not just at Christmas-time. In this sense, Christmas each year can be considered God asking each of us how we would answer the question-

What does Christmas ask of you?

At a family gathering on Friday night, I asked those present how they would answer that question – ‘What does Christmas ask of you?’ Our eldest granddaughter, Caitlyn, pondered the question and then said that to her the act of giving at Christmas was most important – it meant a great deal for her to do so each Yuletide. But pondering my question further, she was led to reflect that perhaps having a giving spirit was something God expected of us throughout the year, not just at Christmas. So, she said, she felt that perhaps God was asking of her this Christmas, that she should not cease the joy of giving by the time the twelfth day of Christmas has passed but strive to ensure such a giving spirit endured. How would you answer the question of what Christmas asks of you? Maybe, at some time during your Christmas festivities today, you might pause to reflect on the question yourselves.

Christmas as a festival has great merit as a bonding exercise – bringing family and friends together. However, Christmas is more than just a religious happy hour, it is the celebration of God coming to meet us. Again, in the words of the King to his son:

‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.’

What would it mean for each of us to ‘come back to God as far as we can’; and for Christmas to be a catalyst to help us in that reflection? Christmas carols continue to be a wonderful way in which in which we seek not only to keep Christ in Christmas but also to reflect on the ‘reason for the season’ as the saying goes. Carols are indeed musical icons of Christmas – they paint pictures of divine love reaching out to human yearning and generally of goodwill abounding.

But let me share the story of a darker carol, one written in the lead up to Christmas in 1915. As World War I was unfolding in all its horror, Claude Debussy, who had been diagnosed with cancer some months before, wrote a carol – Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison [A carol for homeless children]. When you read the words he wrote, you will understand why it is never included in festive carol singing occasions; for the carol is bleak. Listen to this refrain:

Noël! Petit Noël! n’allez pas chez eux, n’allez plus jamais chez eux, punissez-les!

Which translated means:

Noël, little Noël, don’t visit them, don’t visit them ever again, punish them!

The ‘them’ being the enemy and all their families. It is a bleak carol indeed. In human terms, it was perhaps somewhat understandable, for Debussy was raging against an enemy that had inflicted terrible suffering on his fellow countrypeople.  He was justifiably horrified by what he saw happening around him; and he wanted to scream out in anger. But three years later, as the slaughterhouse of the Great War ground mercilessly on, and by now on his deathbed, perhaps wearily, perhaps reflectively, he asked the question:

When will hate be exhausted? Or is it hate that’s the issue in all this?

Debussy died on the day after Palm Sunday in 1918. Perhaps, with these deathbed reflections then, Debussy finally understood the significance of ‘Emanuel – God with us’; that, on the eve of the commemoration of the crucifixion and the celebration of the Resurrection, that the real message of Christmas dawned upon him – ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ [John 3:16].

Perhaps, in that Holy Week of 1918, with war still raging, Debussy finally understood the Christmas message that he had interpreted in very human terms in 1915. By his words – ‘when will hate be exhausted’ – was Debussy realising that the hate he had felt in 1915, so understandable in human terms with all the dreadful suffering war had been inflicting, that the need to combat such hate had been the purpose of the incarnation?

It seems it had taken Debussy three years for him to understand what Christmas asked of him. But when he realised it, it upended his way of seeing the world.

What does Christmas ask of each of us? Will it invite us to a similar upending of how we see the world? Of how we see those things that grieve us in worldly terms? When we seek to answer that question of what Christmas asks of each of us, will we be able to hear God say to us?:

‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.’

And thus, upon hearing him, start our first steps on the journey back to God from the angers of this world; knowing that, through the incarnation, God has already started out on his journey to meet us on the rest of the way. Merry Christmas.