In 2015, James Rebanks, a hill-farmer in the Lake District, wrote a book called “The Shepherd’s Life”, in which he described the farming year in that part of the country. It is a beautiful book, reflecting a deep connection with the landscape and the animals, and the wisdom of generations about how to do difficult and sometimes dangerous work in what can be a very harsh environment. It is an honest book about the challenges facing agriculture and the rural economy, challenges which are even greater in our present uncertain political context. Writing about Christmas, he says:
“We work through Christmas. The sheep need feeding and looking after as if it were any other day. It sounds like a pain, but it isn’t. Tending to a flock of sheep or feeding cattle feels like the most natural thing to do on the birthday of someone born in a manger in a faraway land of shepherds.”
Tonight, we go in heart and mind to Bethlehem, to that faraway land of shepherds; with the shepherds of the Judean hills we go to see this thing that has happened, about which we and they have been told. With them, we return glorifying and praising God, for all that we hear and see, as it has been told us. With those who live outside the city, occupied in all their day-to-day work – we are invited to turn our attention to this child. Whether we do so from habit, or curiosity, or for reasons we can’t articulate; whether tonight we come in joy and excitement, or in sadness or loneliness or fear, the child is there, with Mary and Joseph, lying in the manger.
They laid him in the manger because, Luke tells us, there was no place for them in the inn. Our pictures and Nativity scenes, our carols and traditions, imagine the manger as being in a lowly cattle-shed. What the building was precisely like doesn’t matter very much. That Mary needed to wrap up her new-born and place him in an animal’s feeding trough because there was nowhere else to put him, tells us that the accommodation was inadequate and at best temporary. God comes into our midst, makes his dwelling among those who have no safe or proper place to sleep; the Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent amidst the tents and sleeping bags of those who sleep rough in our towns and cities.
Last month, there was a major summit in Cambridge, to look at ways to address the increasing issue of homelessness in the city. The event was called ‘It Takes A City’: no one person or agency can solve all the complex problems that lead to people sleeping rough, or in unsuitable or temporary accommodation, or going from sofa to sofa. As we go in heart and mind to Bethlehem to see the Holy Family in the outbuilding, no doubt as draughty and smelly as any other farm building, we are called to see this thing which has happened, and is happening now in our midst, to see where Christ is pitching his tent in the midst of his fragile little ones from whom, so often, it is easier to avert our gaze as we continue with our day.
We go in heart and mind to Bethlehem, and see a different uncertainty, vulnerability and fragility. In a few weeks’ time, I shall be leading a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We will go to Bethlehem, and stay in that little town that is so much the focus of our reflections and carols tonight. Bethlehem today is uncertain, vulnerable, and fragile, in a land of tension, just as then in the days of Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor in Syria. The shepherds who were in that region, living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, would find themselves now in a changed landscape – the hill country occupied by settlements, and the separation wall making their journey into Bethlehem to see the thing which the Lord had made known to them very uncertain indeed. The situation of the Christians of Bethlehem is but a glimpse of the challenges that face our sisters and brothers in Christ across the Middle East, in the Holy Land, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. We need to keep them in our hearts, and minds, and prayers long after we have finished singing carols for this year. God comes among us, pitching his tent in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Turkey and Greece; the Holy Family are among the numbers taking the risk of a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean in search of sanctuary. The infant Christ is there – utterly vulnerable, facing an uncertain future, at the checkpoint in the separation wall, and in the fragility of those Christian communities, some of whom still worship in the language in which Our Lord learned to talk.
The shepherds make their journey to Bethlehem, compelled by the message of the angels who sing not only of “Glory to God in the highest” but also of “Peace on earth”. The Child in that outbuilding is the Prince of Peace, who comes as light shining in the darkest places, in the dark corners of this world and of our own lives, shining on those in deep darkness and the shadow of death. The glory of the Lord that fills the skies above the Judean hill-country outshines the security lights of the wall around the dark streets of Bethlehem. He comes with the promise of light and hope, risen with healing in his wings, for those in the darkness of addiction, mental illness or isolation on the streets of our towns and cities. He is dwelling amongst us, as we carry on with our daily lives and tasks, from feeding sheep or children, amidst all the uncertainties we face as individuals, nationally and internationally, as much as he is with us in the joy of these Christmas celebrations.
The Christmas angels come to us telling great glad tidings, and singing their love-song from heaven. That love-song tells us that the Child who was born in a faraway land of shepherds, came not only to a manger in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God has pitched his tent in our midst. He invites us to make room in our hearts and lives for him today. We are invited to stop and hush the noise to hear the love-song from heaven which promises peace and freedom. We are invited to go in heart and mind, and worship at the manger-throne. And then to return, glorifying and praising God for all that we hear and see – that God has come to dwell amongst us, and that God’s love is made visible in the “Great little one, whose all-embracing birth, brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.”