After shaking hands with the vicar and the young curate at the door the congregation poured out of the old church into the bright Australian December sunshine for a chat as the children ran around the lawn.
The ever-watchful vicar’s wife – she was a primary school teacher- noticed a toddler go back into the empty church. Standing just inside the door the woman watched the three year old head towards the sanctuary where she climbed the step and stood in front of the altar. The altar was hollow and inside was a nativity display with large painted plaster figures of two shepherds, Mary and Joseph looking down at the baby in the manger.
The woman caught her breath as the little girl approached the fragile figures which were carefully stored every year and just as carefully placed inside the altar. The adult almost called out when the child bent down, and was glad she hadn’t. The child leant forward, tenderly kissed the baby Jesus and headed back out of the church to play with the others.
Wonder and adoration are at the heart of Christmas. I’ve experienced it singing “Angels from the realms of glory” at Christmas Eve Midnight services, listening to St Luke’s account of the shepherds or St Matthew’s account of the wise men or listening to the choir singing “O holy night”.
That may come as no surprise but what is surprising is the joy that the Christmas story has given to people in the darkest of times and places like concentration camps and war zones. It’s because the real Christmas story is set in a time and place of oppression and hardship. Jesus was born homeless and then his parents had to flee to save him from the murderous king. And that just set the scene for the rest of his life of hardship and struggle culminating in his cruel death. It sounds grim. Yet St John’s Gospel describes his life with wonder, adoration and joy: “in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The powers of the day were the Roman Emperor, his vassal-king Herod and the Chief Priests of Jerusalem. They wielded the tools that rulers have always used: pomp and ceremony, law and punishment, and when necessary blackmail and torture. They would have been surprised to be called “powers of darkness” because they saw themselves blessing the world, or at least the privileged classes, with peace and prosperity. But they didn’t know what to do when they encountered Jesus. Jesus was everything they were not. He was poor and humble, forgiving and compassionate, truth-telling and welcoming of all-comers especially the outcastes. So the powerful tried to snuff him out. Only after his death and resurrection did people get a true grasp of his character. Jesus is the ultimate example of genuine soft power. Two thousand years later billions love and adore him as the King of Hearts.
Christmas 2020 will see the reunion of our whole family at our home in Tasmania after the nine month’s separation of Covid-19 restrictions. We will look back with fondness at all our Christmases, even the tough ones. Christmas 2010 saw Pam and me worshipping with our congregation in Damascus on the eve of the Syrian Civil War. Within six months they were all gone, some killed, others displaced. The year 2000 saw our family in Jakarta at the time of the despicable Christmas Eve bombings of churches across Indonesia which caused 18 deaths and 118 other casualties. The bomb planted in the All Saints church carpark was found by a vigilant jaga and defused by the police. But Christmas 1990 has sweet memories because I was that young curate and Susie, our second daughter, was that child who snuck back into church to kiss the baby Jesus.
May Christmas 2020 be for you a sweet one for there is no better time than times of darkness like these to celebrate the birth of “the light that shines in the darkness” and come and adore the King of Hearts.
Written by Revered Andrew Lake, previous Minister of All Saints Church Jakarta, now Locum of All Saints Church Jakarta.