“The world did not recognize him ” John 1:10
What motivates us? What is there that stirs passion and excitement, or anger and outrage?
Sitting at Croke Park on a Saturday afternoon in November, there was one moment that provoked thoughts about what it is that people feel in their guts. The moment wasn’t when Ireland scored, it was when a Springbok player made what the crowd believed to be a high and dangerous tackle. There was a visceral growl of anger around the ground. Individually, people could not have put into words the sense of what they felt, but amongst seventy thousand people collectively there was no doubt about it.
What is it about such occasions that can evoke such a response?
Back in August, we were in south-west France on holiday and wanted to see the local rugby club in their first home league match of the season. The crowd was expected to be twice the size that their home ground could hold, so the match was switched across the border into Spain. Twenty-eight thousand people from Bayonne went down to San Sebastian to watch a French league rugby match. It was a magical occasion; when Bayonne beat Stade Francais 38-24, the crowd were in raptures, the team did a lap of honour at the end of the match and the supporters stood and clapped and clapped.
What was it all about? The match at Croke Park was a friendly; the match in San Sebastian was just an ordinary league match, as might be played week in week out; what is there in sporting occasions that brings out such passion and commitment? Why will people spend their entire savings to travel to follow their team in international tournaments? Maybe it’s something that would be hard to put into words.
Driving home from Spain after the match, (and it was only afterwards that the thought occurred that twenty-eight thousand people had now to get home on a road at the western end of the Pyrenees), sitting in a traffic jam at midnight, there was the thought that there are not many people who would make such a journey for the sake of their faith; not many who would contemplate devoting so much time and money to something religious.
We lost something along the way. The story of Jesus, which once captured the imagination of the whole of Europe, for most people now has considerably less excitement than an average sporting fixture.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, the church boldly declares in the Christmas Gospel, as though simply reciting the words from Saint John Chapter 1, verse 14 tonight, is enough to clinch an argument. It is a declaration that is so ineffective that the words of John 1:10 would seem more appropriate to describe our situation in 2009, “the world did not recognize him ”
Perhaps there is a problem with both our words and our deeds. There is a modern American version of the Bible by Eugene H. Peterson which translates verse 14 in a different way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”. It carries much more meaning: God takes on human flesh and blood and joins in the ordinary life of an ordinary neighbourhood.
Jesus doesn’t become a religious figure, he becomes the sort of a person you would see down the street. Jesus was a working man—in my community that would mean he was a blue collar worker who went off to his work every morning with his box of sandwiches. He would have lived in a council house. He would have had a garden or allotment where he grew vegetables. He would have done the football pools every week and read the ‘Daily Mirror’. Jesus would have been on the trip down to San Sebastian for the match that August night.
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”, but when we look at the church, do we get a sense of God coming down into the ordinariness and the messiness and, sometimes, the plain horribleness of this life? The church I encounter simply doesn’t appeal to the ordinary punters whom we all know. Every year we read the same stuff at Christmas, and how seriously do we take it? People will see news pictures of bishops in extraordinary get ups and will think the whole thing is absurd, that none of it has anything to do them—there’s no sense of God being down our street. Nothing in any of it that would inspire anything near the excitement found at even a run of the mill sports event
God present in our neighbourhood brings responses from unlikely people . It’s always worth looking at the people who come to see this child Jesus in the Christmas story – no clergy, no bishops, no church people. Shepherds – rough characters, working men. Magi – men wise to the ways of the world They are men who would probably hold in contempt the 21st Century church. These are the people who come to see Jesus, these are the people for whom there is good news. These are the hard men of the neighbourhood, yet they are inspired to travel with the sort of commitment to match that of sports fans heading to a major fixture.
These men come to see this child because they believe God has taken on flesh and blood and because they believe that they will find answers to the questions the church of their time could not answer. When your spouse dies; when one of your children is lying ill; when someone who has always been there for you has gone; when you work and work and it’s all a waste of time; when all your hopes come to nothing; then you need answers and bishops in fine outfits, and great buildings, and huge organisations are not answering the questions.
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”, when people see God at work in their own communities, in their own streets, then they will be motivated, then they will respond. In our own parish, we know this to be true—in the past year we have collected €18,000 for the work in Rwanda, because that work is God’s presence expressed in flesh and blood terms; it is Jesus being made real in ordinary lives.
There is a choice. “The world did not recognize him”, John 1:10, is where we are. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”, John 1:14, is where we could be. It is a choice we can only make for ourselves.