‘Joy to the world!
The Lord is come;
let earth receive her King;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room,
and heav’n and nature sing.’
It’s a lovely Christmas hymn (we sang it this year at the Carol Service). To sing ‘the Lord is come’ is to remind ourselves that Jesus comes to us here and now, and not only on that first Christmas. And to sing ‘let ev’ry heart prepare him room’ is a real challenge.
Like many clergy, I find it much easier to ‘prepare him room’ in the days after Christmas, rather than in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Christmas services. And I can sympathise with the recently-retired Rector of Warrington Parish Church who said what he was most looking forward to at Christmas was not falling asleep on Christmas Day afternoon.
But I suspect it isn’t just clergy who feel that ‘preparing him room’ might actually be easier once the pressures of shopping, feeding and entertaining have passed. Then we might be more receptive: ready for a bit more giving rather than retail getting; more celebrating who Jesus is than decorating the house; more concerned to feed the hungry than our filled-to-bursting families and friends.
Before we pack away the baubles, the lights and the tinsel for another year, consider this: Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day, or after the twelve days of Christmas. It doesn’t end with Epiphany or Lent or Easter. Christmas is God’s abiding gift to us, a continual present and presence, a challenge to go on preparing room in our hearts for the things of God.
The work of Christmas has only just begun. Spare a thought for the scene in the manger the day after Christmas morning. Exhausted and utterly stunned parents are trying to make sense of a whole new reality. They have a new baby, a new life who is even more of a miracle than the average new-born. Amidst all the noise of the animals, the farmyard smells and the detritus of childbirth, they’re also a little afraid of what the future holds. For any new parents, the work is only just beginning. For us who recognise in this child Emmanuel, the God who is with us, likewise our work has not ended on Christmas Day: it too is just beginning.
One way we can be reminded of this is through the Christmas crib. It was St. Francis in the 13th century who set up the first nativity scene in northern Italy. An early biographer of St. Francis wrote: “To excite the villagers to commemorate the nativity of the infant Jesus with devotion, Francis prepared a manger, and brought hay and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The man of God stood before the manger full of devotion. Then he preached to the people of the nativity of the poor King; and because he could not utter his name for the tenderness of his love, he called him the Babe of Bethlehem”.
For Francis the crib was a physical space that embraces the eternal; an icon which draws you into its own life and leads beyond, to meditate on the infinite depths of God’s love and lead us into a deeper awareness of his wonder.
Our own crib stays up in church until the end of Epiphany, not as a decoration but as a help to meditate on the mystery of God coming to dwell with us and what it means for us. It reminds us of the work to be done. There’s a poem by Howard Thurman called ‘The Work of Christmas’:
‘When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.’