The Eve of the Incarnation of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)
24 December 2012
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech thee, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
This past autumn, PBS aired the BBC dramatization of Jennifer Worth’s memoir, Call the Midwife. Jacalyn and I enjoyed the television show enormously and I have started reading the three books that constitute her memoirs of life working as a midwife and district nurse with the Anglican Sisters of Saint John the Divine, Whitechapel in London’s East End in the 1950s (1). There are many reasons I felt drawn into her stories, not the least of which was I wanted to learn more about the spiritual journey she experienced as an agnostic lay nurse working so closely with professed nuns. What struck me most, however, as we approach the feast of the Nativity, was her description of the real risks and dangers of pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy that are no longer parts of our every-day consciousness in the developed world in the twenty-first century.
In her work, Worth paints a portrait of a time and a place that in many ways is further removed from our experience than the mere chronological sixty years would suggest. The poverty and privation of London's docklands in the immediate post-war years seems much closer to the Victorian era than ours. This was an age and place in which the scars of war were still raw, when plumbing and modern sanitisation were not universally available, before effective birth control was widely available and easily practised, and advances in medical science were just beginning to move in leaps and bounds. The East End of the 1950s was a liminal time and place, a time and place between two ages, and childbirth—often at home in less than sanitary conditions—was still a very dangerous business. The stories Worth tells are moving and harrowing and suggest that the delivery room—whether in a tenement, a flat above an infamous “all night café,” or even a manger—was for many mothers and children itself a liminal place, a place between life and death.
Worth’s stories reveal both the strength of the mothers, sometimes no older than fourteen or fifteen, who bore children in all sorts of conditions and the fragility of human life. They reveal the strength of the tiniest of human creatures and their utter helplessness. They reveal the supreme power of love to heal the heart and soul in the midst of the most difficult times. Reading these stories in the season of watching and waiting, in the season of Advent in which we look for the coming into the world of God Incarnate and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, I could not help reflecting upon the amazing idea that the Christian story begins tonight with childbirth
Indeed, Luke and Matthew insist on Jesus’ being born of a human mother into the world. Jesus was born in the age of another great Empire, to another poor teen-age mother. He was born as every man was born in that age with no pre-natal care, no modern medicine, no antiseptic conditions.
Jesus’ birth was probably as harrowing and frightening as many of those described in Worth’s memoir. Mary must have been a girl of great strength, willing and able to carry on in a circumstance of enormous uncertainty. Jesus must have been as vulnerable as any baby, as small as any baby, as dependent as any baby upon the love and attention of his mother. How extraordinary it is that Christianity would have the nerve to assert that God chose to inaugurate his Kingdom, his reign of love, in and through the birth of a child. What a reversal of expectations! God does not swoop out of heaven like a great warrior. He does not appear sui generis as an adult. No, God comes to us as a human child, completely dependant upon his mothers love, receptive to his mother's love, and able to return that love himself.
What we learn in and through this extraordinary assertion, is that Christianity does not see vulnerability as a weakness. Indeed, vulnerability is, counterintutiviely, a strength, the greatest strength we possess. Our humanity depends on our vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be open to others, open to receiving what others have to offer us, open to being loved. It is the place where our ability to share love begins. Yes, we may get hurt and indeed we will get hurt. But we have a relationship, an unbreakable relationship with the God who knows vulnerability, who knows what it is like to be wounded, but who shows us the power to love in the most dire of circumstances.
Tonight we welcome the Christ Child into the world. We see him born in primitive conditions, in an age of high infant and maternal mortality, and utterly helpless. This is the child we adore, this is the God we worship, and this changes everything. If this is our God, what then should be our priorities? Gone is the imperative for martial strength. Gone is the imperative to be self-sufficient and purely self-reliant. Gone is the need to hide our emotions and wall our selves off from others. The infant Christ, the loving, dependant, vulnerable Son of God, calls us to love as he loves, unconditionally and unselfishly.
Whitechapel in 1950 may be far removed from the Bethlehem of Jesus Birth, but the vivid stories of the children born there, their mothers, and the women who assisted at their perilous labour are powerful reminders of the strength and fragility of human life. They are powerful reminders that God does not call us to be divine, but that he calls us to perfect our humanity, perfect our vulnerability, and love him and each other as he loves us. This Christmas night, we give thanks for the miraculous birth of Our Lord, miraculous of course for its bringing the divine into our world, but miraculous also for all that Mary and Jesus endured for the sake of love.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ember Saturday, 22 December 2012
1. Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife: a memoir of birth, joy, and hard times (London: Penguin, 2002). The subsequent volumes are Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) and Farewell to the East End (2009).
© 2012 Andrew Charles Blume