4 January – Crib and cross

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(John 1.10-18)

We are back to that Christmas Gospel again, the passage that opens St John’s Gospel and which acts as the climax to so many carol services. The story goes that when King George II heard the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed, he stood and consequently everyone else stood. It became a tradition; it’s a piece of music that we all stand for. In a similar way in many carol services when we arrive at this, so often the final reading, we stand – it is that important.

The Messiah Festival at the Crystal Palace

The Messiah Festival at the Crystal Palace

But you can’t read or hear this particular reading too often, there is always something which leaps out at you, grabs your attention, and that is the glory of scripture which we revisit again and again and again. Like the householder in the parable bringing from the storehouse ‘things old and things new’ we continually draw fresh water from the spring of scripture. We need that spring, that ‘living water’ as Jesus will describe it later in St John’s Gospel.

What struck me as I read this again were the lines with which this gospel reading opens.

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’

There is a marvellous passage in the book of Proverbs which ends like this

I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

(Proverbs 8.30-31)

The passage is about Wisdom, but it is often used to refer to the eternal nature of the Son, the second person of the Trinity whose incarnation we celebrate at this time and of which John so eloquently speaks. ‘The world came into being through him’ says John and the writer of the book of Proverbs suggests something similar.

I am a devotee of the work of R S Thomas. I know that his poems can be a bit on the gloomy side but there is something for me about the way in which his questioning approach to faith draws out great truth in which we can all share. His poem ‘The Coming’ speaks of similar things to what we are thinking about

And God held in his hand
a small globe. Look, he said,
the son looked. Far off,
as through water, he saw
a scorched land of fierce
colour. The light burned
there: crusted buildings
cast their shadows; a bright
serpent, a river
uncoiled itself, radiant
with slime.

On a bare
hill a bare tree saddened
the sky. Many people
held out their thin arms
to it, as though waiting
for a vanished April
to return to its crossed
boughs. The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.

‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ writes St John. With Jesus we are never far from the cross. Whilst the visitors with whom we have been Bethlehem bound have in the main been happy to see the baby in the crib – and there are still some on their way – not all of them have been, as we have seen. Herod was so paranoid that the slaughter of the innocents happened as a consequence. At his presentation in the Temple, a feast that properly brings Christmas to a close, Simeon will take the child in his arms and say

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ and to Mary he said ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
(Luke 2.34-35)

The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais painted what was at the time a controversial picture called ‘Christ in the House of his Parents. He pictures Jesus at work alongside his father, but this time it is Joseph, not as Proverbs describes him at the side of the creator God, ‘I was beside him, like a master worker’. This is not cosmic creation but the work of the carpenter. And there in the workshop we see the materials for the cross and the tools and the nails that will ultimately hold Jesus to the wood. He has wounded his hand and Mary is on her knees caring for him, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ You can see the painting in Tate Britain and it is well worth a visit if you are in London.

'The Childhood of Christ' by John Everett Millais

‘The Childhood of Christ’ by John Everett Millais

We are never far from the cross and that is what R S Thomas hints at in his poem as he says

The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.

We continue to celebrate the fact that the Father sent the Son to be with us, one with us, to save his people from their sins from the wood of the crib to the wood of the cross. This is the prayer we are using whilst the Minimal Nativity is in Southwark Cathedral.

Lord Jesus,
in the crib and on the cross
you were held by wood
and given the name above every name.
May your name
be written on my heart;
may my name
be written in your love.

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