I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I write this letter at the closing of the year to share one or two thoughts.
I wonder if you are one of those people who turn to the final pages of a book before you read it, just to check whether the story has a ‘happy ending’ or not.
The way a story is begun affects our understanding of everything that follows. The same can be said of endings – once we have read the end of the book, it affects the way we reflect back on everything that has happened to the characters and their experiences thus far. Most good novels will leave hints in their endings that the story continues on – and that a sequel may follow!
We encounter several ‘endings’ in the Christmas stories we have been remembering and reflecting upon over the last days.
On the Sunday after Christmas, we heard from Luke about the closing chapter in the lives of Simeon and Anna, two elderly saints who had been faithfully waiting and hoping ‘for the consolation of Israel’ – or in other words, they had been waiting and hoping to see the promised Messiah. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple, they knew that their waiting was over, ‘nunc dimittis’ (now you can let me go). But in the ending of their waiting, they also recognised a beginning – the dawning of a new era not only for Israel, but for the waiting world.
After the Magi from the east eventually found the child Jesus after their long search, and had presented their gifts, they were warned in a dream to return home by a different route. Matthew’s gospel tells us nothing more about them after this, and we are left to imagine the ending of their story – although T S Elliott supplies one for us in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
And what about the ending of the Nativity story itself? Luke gives us quite a satisfactory concluding verse to his version at the end of chapter 2 ‘And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.’
However, Matthew’s ending is fraught with danger, and an urgent, unplanned journey for Joseph and Mary to ensure the safety of their tiny vulnerable child. This gospel writer offers us no happy resolution to his Nativity story, but instead tells us of the flight of the holy family into the unknown, whilst back in Bethlehem Herod’s soldiers wreak his murderous revenge on the population.
Perhaps for obvious reasons, we don’t dwell much on these ‘endings’ in our retelling of the Nativity stories.
In our own life experiences, endings come in different guises. Sometimes they leave us bereft and sad, as at the end of a loving and fulfilling relationship; at other times, when we, or those we love have been suffering physical or mental agonies, an ending can bring relief and freedom.
But an ending is always a potential beginning, a new journey on which we can choose to set out – whether with a sense of trepidation, or with courageous determination – or likely both!
The ending of a year like this one brings both anxiety and hope. We have no way of knowing how the next few months will develop. We are anxious for ourselves, our families, our church and our communities, for the vulnerable whose difficulties have been compounded, for our young people and their futures, for failed businesses, and rising unemployment.
However, we have promised ourselves that we shall learn from the lessons of this difficult year, and we can also dare to be hopeful for several reasons. There is a vaccine which may help us, in time, to overcome the virus. We have glimpsed a kinder, more compassionate side to our society, and a growing awareness of inequalities and injustices. We have witnessed inspirational acts of selflessness which have sown seeds of transformation, and reminded us of our connectedness with one another. We are more deeply appreciative of our unsung emergency workers, and the pressures they face on a daily basis. And perhaps during this time of scarcity, we are continuing to discover – in daily blessings – the abundance of God.
There will be many challenges to negotiate in the months ahead, no doubt, but the ‘Emmanuel’ of our unfinished Nativity stories is a God who continues to come and make himself at home in the ordinary mangers of our hearts, and who cries out for us to show our compassion and commitment to him through our compassion and commitment to others.
I pray that like Simeon and Anna, we will continue to be faithful and prayerful, alert to the signs of the Kingdom that we suddenly discover in our midst. That, like the Magi who knelt at the feet of the child Jesus, we will continue to worship together, even if apart – whether that is within the limitations of our physical church services, or online, or in our personal devotional time, and that we will continue to offer our gifts of service and gospel-sharing as we care for others.
And we can know that - like Mary and Joseph who stepped out on their journey into the unknown - we will be guided and encouraged by the presence within and around us, Emmanuel. In the words of John Wesley: ‘The best of all is, God is with us’.