One freezing January morning when Tommy Cooper was doing his National Service, Tommy Cooper was on sentry duty and fell asleep standing up alongside his sentry box. He opened half an eye and saw his commanding officer approaching. Quickly, Tommy then closed his eyes again before opening them, saying: ‘…and for all these good things, we are truly thankful. Amen.’ Whereupon the CO, thinking Tommy was concluding his prayers, strolled away. But do you find yourself stuck in January and this a difficult month? It seems bare, stripped back everywhere, rather drab. I want to make the Christmas festival last: while running in Woodmancote, perhaps unwisely, I told off a man, who looked not unlike Victor Meldrew, for prematurely removing his Christmas tree to his verge with the rubbish and recycling on January 2nd; his reply alas is not repeatable and his frozen expression was at one with the landscape. January in the woods and in shops and offices seems like Lent does in church. Rather monochrome. And under the glitter and wrapping of our own lives it’s back to the that nudging reality and what we’ve put off. For some, that can be tough. Many must face up to the reality of overreaching themselves, of being sucked into spending more than they ever should. You may well know those who must face once more difficult family life behind closed doors. For those in trouble like this right now, we pray that Christ’s love for them fills their hearts.
Meanwhile, at children’s school nativity plays and crib services at our churches, I was struck by how many parents and grandparents were there and thank goodness, how prominent the Christmas story still is. But once the productions finished, I wondered how the real message of Christ’s birth affected all those who watched. The danger is that the story gets sentimentalized and the truth grows stale, through the years of retelling. And really, it needs a fresh look.
So here is that fresh look, told me by a man called Father Christy Cox, an Irish missionary in Uganda for many decades. It’s from an African nativity play that takes looks at our Gospel story in a new way.
The scene is the usual one with Mary and Joseph near the infant Jesus, with shepherds and angels in the background. As three characters approach, we think they are the three wise men. But no, we see that these have already come and gone as the three gifts are prominently displayed before the cradle. When the three get nearer, we realise that they are certainly not shepherds, kings or wise men. One is dressed in rags. One has chains all round him. And the other is gaunt and emaciated and is in great distress. As they approach, the choir sings: “Joseph, close the door, they are thieves and robbers coming to steal all we have.” Joseph answers: “No, let them enter, our Child is meant for everybody.”
Joseph then tries to give away the gifts. Gold to the first, to help him in his poverty. Frankincense to the second, to calm his troubled mind. Myrrh to the third, to soothe his wounds. With great courtesy, the three refuse and then address the Child directly. “Little Child, you don’t belong to the world of gold and frankincense. You belong to our world, a world of pain and suffering. We too have come to bring our gifts.” The first then says: “Little Child, please accept my tattered shirt because one day you will be stripped and beaten and led away naked. Remember my gift then.” The second says: “Little Child, I give you one of my chains because one day you will be led out in chains, but on that day you will break the chains of many people.” The third says: “Little Child, I have nothing to offer you but my fear and my loss of faith in God and man, but Little Child, I know that you and only you, can take these things and change them into something beautiful for God.” Then the three walk away with straighter backs now and lighter steps. Something seems to have changed – and life is different now, better than before. It’s as if we have a glimpse ahead to all that Jesus will do.
This play is a powerful world away from the sentimentality we see so often. So how does it relate to us?
Most of us would like to have nothing but our perfect thoughts and our best hopes to offer to God. But often instead of the familiar gifts of the wise men the only things we have to offer are our frustration and failures, our bitter and burdensome thoughts. But you know, these are the nitty-gritty of real prayer. If prayer means lifting the mind and heart to God, then it is precisely what is in my mind and heart at this moment that I can offer up. And this is what God is interested in hearing about: what bothers us, what keeps us awake when it’s hard to sleep, and when we wake up, those thoughts and worries that quickly overtake us and can almost wreck our day before it’s begun.
We can offer up the tattered shirts of our failures and broken promises, the chains of our sins and weaknesses, our frustration and anger, our ashes of lost hopes and a feeling of loss of faith in God and men and women. We must be real when we pray. Talk to God about these things and talking means sharing your worries, doubts, tears and fears.
If starting this year is difficult for you, then Jesus is there with you. Despite all our best efforts, we may still feel inadequate and a failure. But that is not how Jesus sees us. As we walk through these dark-too-early days with our hopes and fears, we can do so courageously because of Emmanuel – God with us – in Jesus, who shares our human nature. For us, he sees new starts, not dead ends. Carriageways of hope not cul-de-sacs. He wants to see us walking upright with light steps like those three men earlier, towards new possibilities and new starts. And for us and those we love, his protection and his promise is that he will be with all of us, always. Amen.