In 1856 the British explorer John Hanning Speke joined an expedition to travel North from what is now Mozambique in search of the source of the Nile. At one point the party was struck by an unknown disease causing partial blindness: Speke’s co-leader eventually turned back but he carried on. In another incident a beetle burrowed into his ear – fortunately he was able to dig it out with a knife, although he did go partly deaf in the process – to add to the blindness. After 2 years and over 600 miles Speke found the second of two large lakes and correctly assumed it was the source of the Nile. He named it Lake Victoria and raced back to England to claim the glory for his discovery.
Was it worth all the effort? Does it really matter, you wonder? What is it about something great, that we want to find its source? Why is it, in the same way, with famous people, we are drawn to go and visit the place where they were born? Perhaps somehow we are looking for some truth which sheds light on what followed? A photo of the champion racing driver, aged two, on his tricycle? Or John Lennon’s family home, where some of the early Beatles songs were composed – which is now a tourist attraction? There seems to be not only a curiosity about beginnings, but the hope that there might be something to be learned from them.
So I imagine Luke, the doctor, setting about writing his account of the life and passion of Jesus. He has plenty of material: a version of Mark’s gospel, and another compilation of Jesus’ miracles and teachings - as well as unnumbered stories handed down from those who were there. But to make the work complete he wants to answer the question, “where did it all begin?”
In my story, I imagine Luke travelling north to Lake Galilee, to Nazareth. Perhaps he finds the old men of the village, sitting in the square and they tell him what they were told about Joseph, the pregnancy of his young fiancée, how they went away for the birth, during the census, only returning when the boy was a toddler. And maybe, for Luke was nothing if not thorough, he also went and found the women, washing clothes in the river, and they told him stories about how Mary endured the trip to Bethlehem and what happened there.
So now Luke has plenty of material. I imagine him choosing those elements which seem to resonate both with the Hebrew Scriptures and with the adult Jesus, as he starts to shape his account. This then, is one possible version of how the birth story we heard this evening was written down and found its way to us.
It's hard to think of the Christmas narrative as fresh and new, as it was at first, for it is woven into our culture - many of us here have grown up with it. How many of you, I wonder, once played an Eastern King in a nativity play, or a shepherd, or maybe just a sheep?
But there is something unconventional – radical even – in this selection of stories, containing as they do themes of childbirth outside marriage, homeless migrants, and a young mother finding kinship with those on the margins of society – shepherds who lived on the hillsides with their sheep - and with foreigners, not of her religion. Themes which resonate with Jesus’ later teaching, the company he kept, his championing of the poor and the foreign, against the oppression and narrow thinking of political and religious institutions.
It is to Mary that Luke gives an intuition of the meaning latent in this moment: those famous lines of the Magnificat, where she celebrates her understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, that she, as ordinary as she felt, was called to a vital role in the unfolding plans of a God who…
… has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,
… has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
… has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
So tonight we celebrate a beginning, the birth of a baby, amid signs of how their story will unfold. As every birth, it is a human miracle, met with joy and surprise. And yet this birth and this person, somehow speak for all other births, all living things, a particular, bodily presence of that God of love and truth whose spirit permeates our world.
A world which, as it evolves, to quote Martin Luther King, bends towards justice. There are days when this seems hard to believe, and then there are days when the ascendancy of the light over the dark seems clear. I pray that the day just beginning will be one such day. Happy Christmas!
Richard Young (Rector)