Reflection for First Sunday of Christmas

by David Pattinson

Galatians 4.4-7. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba!, Father!”

I wonder what images have tugged at your heart strings over the last few months? Has it been the daughter desperate to hug her mother in a nursing home, but only able to do so through glass – centimetres away. Or parents who have not seen their children for months. Or patients dying with the family unable to visit. Whatever the images that linger, my suspicion is that they have two things in common – distance and family.

Can the heart, can love thrive on distance? Does “Absence make the heart grow fonder”? I don’t think love thrives in separation. As I read the passage from Galatians,  which is the epistle for today, I found myself thinking that God looks at each person, each one of us, as His children – “because you are children” (v6). And we tug at God’s heart strings when we are separated from Him.

And how does God respond? “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son” (v4). He sent His son to redeem us says Paul – to buy us back from the pawnbroker who trades under the three balls of Sin, slavery and separation. The angels tell the shepherds that they stand at the moment in time where “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” God takes the initiative to bridge the gap and reaches out in love. He is in the business of restoring relationships; renewal; revitalisation.

And this isn’t about a casual relationship. It’s about close family ties. I was interested to read a sermon recently preached by brother Geoffrey Tristram from the Society of St John the Evangelist on the Advent antiphon, one of the names of Jesus – “O root of Jesse”. The reading for the day was the first 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel, where Matthew traces Jesus’ family history back to Jesse the father of King David. There are quite a lot of people who are deeply interested in family trees, encouraged by ancestry.com. The reason is our roots shape our identity. And this lineage for Jesus is important because Isaiah had prophesied that The Messiah would “come out from the stump of Jesse.”

And so over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ “line of David” ancestry.  They are called Jesse Trees. (An internet search reveals a fascinating range of material.) Interestingly, the oldest piece of stained glass in England is of a Jesse Tree – at York Minster. And the Jesse tree below dates back to the 12th century and is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter.

Jesse lies at the base, sleeping, rather like Adam when his rib was taken to make Eve.  Coming out from Jesse’s navel is the trunk of a tree.  As the tree climbs we see the figure of his son David, wearing a royal crown.Then the tree ascends to Mary, and then to Jesus himself. The figures on either side are prophets holding scrolls, which open out and fall, imitating the branches of the trees. Above the whole tree is the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.

And here is the punch line in the sermon – “This is not just Jesus’ family tree – but it is also ours.” That reinforced for me what Paul means when he says “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (v7)We can imagine ourselves as branches of the same family tree as Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this Christmas season.

At this family time, where many of us are separated, Paul’s message assures us of two things. That God is always reaching out to us; taking the initiative, through love, to bridge the gap. And that we are children of God. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (v6) What greater privilege can there be.