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Friday 25 December 2020: Christmas Day

A Picture of Christmas

John 1.1-18 


By Ally Barrett

Chaplain at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge

Context: a Christmas morning middle of the road parish, with regular and occasional attenders

Aim: to explore the idea of ‘heaven touching earth’

If I asked you to draw a picture of Christmas, what would you draw? Mary and Joseph, the new-born baby Jesus? A shining star above a stable, and a manger for a crib? Shepherds, angels, magi? This is the picture of Christmas that we have in our minds – the characters and scenes that are familiar from the carols we’ve been singing, and from a million Christmas cards.

Christmas in Saint John’s gospel is a different kind of picture. It’s as if we zoomed out at great speed from the baby in the manger, travelling upwards and upwards, with the stable, Bethlehem, and then even the earth itself getting smaller and smaller until it’s all just a tiny speck in a vast universe. This is what St John sees – it’s harder to grasp, harder to comprehend, and it feels a lot less ‘earthly’ than the picture we’re familiar with.


What if instead I asked you to draw a picture of the relationship between heaven and earth? What would you draw? It’s a much harder task! Maybe this is closer to what Saint John wants to show us. He knew about the baby, the manger, but wanted to offer a bigger perspective on that earthly story – a perspective in which the baby laying in the manger is seen in the context of the whole of creation, all of space and time. It’s an ambitious picture to paint, and sometimes we hear Saint John’s words and it can all feel a bit distant – beautiful, but mysterious and somehow far away. Far from the messy stable, and the reality of everyday life.


We’re sometimes given a picture of the earth as about as far from heaven as it could possibly be: imagery in scripture, hymns and carols presents us with stark contrasts of darkness and light, sin and holiness, time-boundedness and eternity, leaving us with a mental image of a world that is estranged from God and an image of heaven that is a long way away, somewhere unattainable beyond the clouds and stars. The contrast between the peace and majesty of heaven, and the squalor of a borrowed, straw-strewn hut. The contrast between heavenly blessing and earthly hardship, division, and suffering.

And yet the Christmas story is one of heaven touching earth, and John’s gospel isn’t, after all, a picture of the distance between heaven and earth.


The image we are given is not of God reaching out across the void for the first time, but rather of God re-embracing the world from the inside. The picture that Saint John paints is still full of light and darkness, but it shows us a world which is, and always was, nestled in the embrace of heaven. It recalls the Word at the moment of creation, speaking the universe into being, bringing sudden light out of darkness and drawing purpose out of the chance movement of swirling space-dust.


And then, wonder upon wonder, it shows us the semi-ordered chaos of the world in turn bringing to birth the Word-made-flesh – squashy, small, vulnerably and messy. That same eternal Word, now somehow finite and time-bound. Earth in heaven, and heaven in earth: the Word became flesh and lived among us.


This is the mystery of Christmas, a mystery that John’s picture of Christmas shows us so clearly. The truth that is revealed by God’s coming into the world is that, in fact, the world is in God, and always was.

A picture of heaven lovingly surrounding earth, and heaven, paradoxically, held within the earth, in the form of a new-born child. A picture of heaven powerfully and gently surrounding Mary, and heaven, miraculously, contained within her, as she carries and bears Jesus, loving him and holding him just as powerfully and gently as she herself is held. A picture of heaven tenderly and steadfastly surrounding us, and heaven, against the odds, becoming real within us. Yes, even us.

Jesus coming into the world as a baby turns everything inside out, brings the heaven that always surrounded us into the midst of us, so that we are confronted with the reality that God is with us – not somewhere out there, but in our very midst. Christmas is the turning point in earth’s history because it shows once and for all what has always been true: God’s overwhelming, never-ending, infinite love for all that is made.


Heaven is closer than we think. Because the love of God is all around us, and everything we do out of love springs from that heavenly presence in the world and draws earth and heaven even closer. As we gaze on the stable scenes, and the baby lying in Mary’s arms, may our earthly lives be so full of heavenly love that we, too, bring heaven to birth in all the places we find ourselves today, this week, and beyond.

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