(Colossians 3.12-17; Luke 2.41-end)
I am in my 34th Christmas season as a priest. I would be a happy man if I were now paid a pound for every time through those years that I’ve sung at least part of the carol ‘Once in royal David’s city’; and I imagine many of those who have been my colleagues over the years would be happy if I were to pay them a pound for every time they have heard me complaining about one particular verse in that carol. Lest you for some unaccountable reason have been left out of that rant, I’ll rehearse it for you now.
It centres on this, the first of my verses today:
And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey
Love and watch the lowly maiden
In whose gentle arms he lay;
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.
The foundations for the message in this verse lie in the imagination of the writer. She tells us that she knows what Jesus did ‘all through his wondrous childhood’; but you don’t need to spend long reading the four gospels to realise that the total account there of what Jesus himself did all through that childhood is what we just heard in ten verses by Luke. And the irony here is that the episode described is not of one being ‘mild, obedient, good’ to his parents, but of a 12 year old doing things rather more familiar and likely - causing them anxiety as he begins to find his own path, and not considering the consequences of his behavior for them. What is being visited upon the poor children who sing this verse is simply the Victorian adults’ view that they should be seen and not heard - except perhaps when singing morally improving hymns.
The further irony, of course, is that much about this carol is perfectly OK. Although the word ‘royal’ appears in the first line, its abiding themes are that Jesus was born in the most primitive and basic circumstances, and that he was one of us. In simple terms, a clear message about the Christian belief in the incarnation: this child is God and man - for us, and for the transformation of our lives, here and now and in all eternity.
Quite a while before Luke wrote his radiant account (stretched out over two long chapters) of the coming of the Messiah, the burgeoning community of Christians was trying to work out in practice how actually to be people who lived the incarnate life of Christ. They found that they disagreed about rather a lot of things; that there were rivalries between individuals and also between groups; that some among them didn’t behave well; and that they brought all sorts of different cultural and religious preconceptions to their church life and their domestic and public morality. In other words, right from the outset, to try to live as a Christian came with the same kind of questions and challenges that you and I find today. That’s a key reason why Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian record that we have: if everything in church life were hunky-dory, there would have been little reason for him to write. Hence he offers through many communications a mixture of advice, reproof, teaching, and condemnation.
These don’t all make easy reading. We don’t necessarily know to whom and about what he is writing; he gets very worked up about things which are no longer issues for us; and the sometimes relentless nature of his argument can be trying. No doubt it was to counterbalance the impact made by this corpus of letters that later writers like Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, felt the need to write about and pass on the life and sayings of Jesus, and not just the wrangles among Christians.
But what I love about St Paul is that, while he is often sucked down into dealing with the pettinesses of Christian living, he really did know the big picture; in other words, he grasped that uniting of earth and heaven which is the universal message of our faith, and of this season in particular. Which means that just occasionally, in amongst all the argument and advice and obscure details, we sometimes encounter pure unadulterated gold. I offer you one such sentence in today’s reading from Colossians, which constitutes my second verse today. This is a sentence worth knowing by heart, because it sums up perfectly how to be a Christian:
‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’