Sunday, 26 September 2021

God shares in our joy and sorrows

EVERY mother, and indeed every parent, wants the very best for their newborn child.

I know that it’s not difficult to find exceptions to that general rule but it’s still a fact that the overwhelming majority of parents want their children to grow up healthy, happy and fulfilled.

Certainly that was true for Mary.

Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were somewhat unusual — journeying to Bethlehem in the latter stages of pregnancy would have been incredibly uncomfortable; giving birth in a stable; visits from shepherds and wise men.

Then came the visit to Jerusalem and a strange encounter with an old man called Simeon.

It happened in the Temple area. It wasn’t something Mary and Joseph had been looking for. They came to perform their religious vows.

But there he was, this old man who took the child in his arms, praising God that now, in this child, God’s light had come into this world for everyone — for Jews and gentiles alike.

But he wasn’t finished there. He then turned to Mary herself and said these strange sounding words: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

And you may be asking — why has the Bishop gone off message; why isn’t he staying with Bethlehem and with the stable and the shepherds?

Partly because of what has been colouring my life in recent weeks.

I think of the 15-year-old who was baptised a few weeks ago in the north of the county but who then died unexpectedly, or of two of my clergy colleagues both with terminal illnesses. For them and their families, this Christmas will be both poignant and painful.

And it’s because it’s such a joyful time of year that the sense of loss — as many of you will know — will become that much more acute.

Indeed another of my colleagues is having a special “blue Christmas” service in the run-up to December 25 in recognition of that pain.

We can address it in a number of ways. We can hide away and try to forget or we can become extra jolly, hoping to drown feelings in a surfeit of alcohol and food. Or we can try to pretend that we’re not feeling the pain. If we are honest, none of these work.

We can even put a kind of religious gloss on it running along the lines of God wants you to know his joy (which he does) but then the false requirement follows — have a smile on your face all the time, even when you don’t feel like that at all.

And that’s where I come back to this story: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

I am not sure what Mary would have understood by that. Certainly there were a number of swords in her life.

It is highly likely she was widowed. There were definitely times when she found it very difficult to understand her son.

And then came that most painful sword of all as she stood at the foot of his cross, seeing a death that would break any loving parent’s soul.

It doesn’t take much imagination to know that Mary was a real person with real feelings. The same, of course, was true of the child born that first Christmas.

Jesus, too, knew exactly what it was like to live as one of us — to be a human being here on earth.

He knew what it was to be bereaved.

He knew what it was to be really hungry and really thirsty.

He knew how it felt to have his friends desert him.

He knew pain as well as pleasure.

He was a fully rounded human being.

God here on earth, not a god detached from human experience but the God who was fully committed to being born as a baby and to share his life with us.

So, as we approach this Christmas, we can be confident that we don’t have to pretend to Jesus. We can be completely honest about how we are feeling, whether we are full of joy or of sorrow or a mixture of both.

And that’s something that I find is very powerful about the Christian faith. We are linked to the God who really understands our lives as human beings.

So, when we pray to him we are talking with one who meets us where we are and we can be completely honest with.

And that is something to be thankful for at Christmas.

That God became a human being. That he shared in human joys and sorrows then — and he still does today.

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