I love Christmas and in this I know I am not alone. For most people - for most of you I would imagine it is a cherished time - a time for family, a time to stand back and pause for a while, to appreciate some of the things and even people we take for granted in this life. Yes of course for those who have lost a loved one in the past few years Christmas can be difficult and can become something to survive rather than celebrate. And that is sad, but sadder still because it need not be so - Christmas is for all of us, whether happy or sad.
I say that because at the centre of this festival is the Incarnation in which God chose to become as one of us - God chose to become human - and he did so in the most vulnerable form possible - a human child - the baby Jesus. And this Jesus didn't exactly have an easy time - forced into exile as an infant - forced to flee for his life with his parents and some 30 years later dying the most brutal death on the Cross.
We know little of Jesus early years until he reappears on the scene and begins his public ministry in Galilee but it is fair to assume he had happy times as well as the traumas of his birth and death - he had friends - we know that, not only his disciples but Mary and Martha and Lazarus - and it is clear again and again that he had a deep awareness of the Father's Love and he in turn had great love for not only his friends but his enemies.
And so at Christmas while we gather around the manger and look at the Holy Child of Bethlehem we are also witnessing an incarnation that moves beyond the stable, beyond an innocent child into this extraordinary man Jesus who has taken upon himself not only the joy of humanity but also all the potential for pain and hurt that is a part of the human condition.
God became fully human in Jesus and that means that every part of our humanity and our human experience is God infused.
Why did God come to us in human form? Because that is what he made us to be and he did a pretty good job - God saw hope and potential in humanity and essentially became incarnate as one of us not to call us to something else but rather to be the best human beings we can be.
Unfortunately elements within the history of the development of Christian theology have given us a disproportionate sense of shame and guilt about the human condition which is neither just or true. Sometimes this church induced guilt has bordered on self hatred which is a terribly destructive force in people's lives - How could we hate and why should we hate that which is made in the image and likeness of God? We are fundamentally good - that doesn't mean we are perfect but rather than being wretched and hopeless we are perhaps broken but simultaneously hopeful and full of potential.
The Incarnation says it is ok to hurt or to fail, to grieve, to be angry, to feel loss, to doubt because all these things are human and so are we and we cannot reasonably be expected to be something we are not.
We live in a world where so many people are pressured to try or to pretend to be something they are not and so live lives that are disingenuous and self destructive.
The pressures that many of our young people feel to conform to a particular body image or behaviour have produced a lot of casualties whether through bullying, self harm and suicide. And we need only look superficially at social media to see how many people feel pressured to present a particular face or mask to the world which may be far removed from their reality.
Or look at our politics which worldwide is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and a big part of that is a culture of spin, alternative truths (whatever they are) and expediency which forces many good people to live a lie, and that can never be a good thing.
Jesus came to set us free from all this - so that we might be ourselves, our best selves - to realise the God-given potential in each of our lives and when we cannot or will not do that then we quite simply tear ourselves apart - We are alienated from ourselves!
There is nothing as disarming as a baby - grown men and women crumble at the sight of a newborn infant - I think that is why God chose to come in this form - because we need to be disarmed and remove all that is not real and genuine in our lives - anything that suggests that we are not good enough - that we need to do something to become part of God's story - The truth is that God has come to meet us in the Incarnation and to make his story our story - we stand on Holy ground on this earth but we also inhabit holy bodies. We need to learn to love ourselves without feeling guilty - That's the thinking I believe behind those words of Jesus 'to love your neighbour as yourself' - Self love is the beginning of the love of others and in loving ourselves we are simply acknowledging the beauty of what God has done in us.
And that is also what God is doing in the incarnation - acknowledging the beauty of what he has worked in us - God fell in love with his creation and chose to identify fully with it in birth and in death - and yes in Resurrection but lets not rush there too quickly as if this death was not real - It is one of the weaknesses of our Protestant heritage that we find it hard to look at the broken body of Jesus on the Cross and replace it instead with the empty Cross.
The fact that Jesus did die on that Cross means that this Christmas story we celebrate tonight/today can embrace those who grieve as well as those who celebrate. The Resurrection changes our eternal perspective but it does not take the pain of death away - There is no need for false joy or empty celebration - each of can be who we are - we can put away the masks and the burdens of others expectation and simply be who God made us to be - we can be honest and true to ourselves and whether we find our selves in pain or in happiness we are accepted for who we are - we are good enough - we don't need to pretend.
I am reminded of a wonderful observation by the contemporary biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggermann who said 'Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.' I think he had a point - A banal and vacuous happiness has become the principal goal of modern life and for those who are not happy its relentless and often shallow pursuit can become a tool of exclusion and separation. The Christmas greeting itself whether you say Merry or Happy Christmas contains pressure and expectation that not everyone can deliver.
As we gather at the crib we see a little baby - and a baby is the most honest thing in all creation - a baby does not pretend or hide behind a mask or live a lie - a baby does what it says on the tin - there is no filter and no deception- A baby but this baby in particular says it is ok to be you - no matter whether you are filled with sorrow or joy, whether you are happy or sad, you are invited to fall into the loving arms of a God who entered our humanity and made it something sacred and beautiful. You are, each one of you sacred and beautiful
We may not always be happy - hopefully we are sometimes but our lives are filled with meaning, purpose and truth because of what God has done in Jesus and that is surely something that we can all celebrate. Amen.