One of the few thing that I have in common with Christina Rossetti, the poet responsible for the carol ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, is a love of London Zoo.
She found the company of the animals and the disciplined concentration required to sketch them a help in lifting the pervasive depression that affected her later years.
I find it is a good place to think and to be still and look. A bit like an art gallery with exhibits that breath and move.
On my last visit I was enjoying a cup of coffee in the late autumn sun when a fire alarm went off.
All the staff of the Zoo café and the handful of customers were asked to get away from the building and wait for the all clear.
That was when the very friendly member of staff next to me said,
‘ At least it was just the fire alarm; it’s a bit of a worry when it’s the one telling us that the tiger has got loose.’
Encountering a tiger face to face would be a very different proposition from watching it safely through bars and glass!
The same could be said for God. If He is safely tucked away in heaven, or loiters around in empty churches, or is a mere idea in the mind, he is not very dangerous.
The point of Christmas though is he has got loose! He came into the world at Bethlehem, and is still at loose in the world.
To risk being convicted of gender stereotyping, St John’s gospel is clearly the work of a man. The language is stirring and has its magic when read out at Midnight Mass, but it is still deeply abstract and philosophical.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
It is trying to communicate an important truth.
That put in contemporary terms would go something like this:
Meaning, which came fully visible in the life of Jesus Christ, had its origin when the universe was formed and has been instrumental in the evolution of life and the development of moral consciousness.
St John summarises this grand truth of the Incarnation like this.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.
It is no accident that the details that St John makes no mention of at all in his Gospel have such prominence at Christmas.
If St John provides the theory, the other gospels provide the practice.
The stuff we find in Nativity plays and we sing about in traditional Carols.
A young woman having her first child; in deeply troubling circumstances.
A faithful husband of tremendous loyalty.
A gritty journey, not to a hotel recommended by Trip-advisor , but to a shed full of animals.
Learned sky watchers abandoning their own land to bring peculiar gifts to a far distant new born king, in an obscure Roman province.
A jealous and fearful grown up King, Herod, with a twisted heart, who won’t stop at murder to protect his own.
And the last act, which resonates so much with what we hear about daily on the news; what millions are actually experiencing at this very moment; the flight of a family into exile to escape the threat of death.
Into all this is woven the message of the angels. The glad tidings of hope and peace.
The birth of the Saviour, The Son of God.
This vulnerable child, placed in a tangle of straw, born into the mess of the world which we, humanity, have helped to make, who will change everything.
God is on the loose in the world he creates.
It all began at Bethlehem, but later Jesus ranged across Galilee and on to Jerusalem. His love and challenge for all to see.
Our reason for rejoicing tonight is summed up in the last verse of the hymn we will sing later. O Come all ye faithful.- the verse we only ever sing on Christmas Day.
Yea, Lord we greet thee,
Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing.