- Igor Ahmedov
Sermon on Christmas Day at Tartu University-St John’s Church
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
We live the lives of storytellers. Every day, in everything we do, in all our interactions with people, we are telling some kind of a story about ourselves. Especially, it is evident with those of us who use social media, we curate our photos on Instagram, post certain things on Facebook, to tell a certain kind of story about ourselves.
Christmas is the time when telling stories becomes even more prominent everywhere we look and go. Christmas stories can range from Dickensian “Christmas Carol,” which critiques Ebeneezer Scrooge’s obsession with hoarding wealth, to the stories that supermarket advertising tells us about how our dinner table at Christmas should look like or which gifts we should buy, to the critique of Christmas as a capitalist holiday of overconsumption and waste.
During Christmas time, Christian churches are also trying to tell stories. There are stories told at the services about the birth of a baby two thousand years ago who becomes the Saviour of the world and saves people from death and sin. There are stories of people who feel the need to come to church on Christmas Eve because this is the tradition, the story of their family.
There are stories in Estonia of people who want to oppose jõulud as being Christian and want to emphasise the pagan nature of the word Yule.
The stories are being told all around about the true meaning of Christmas. Recently, the Archbishop of the Estonian Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, posted on social media that he could not find a single Christmas card in the shop that would have a religious motif.
I do not think that we can presuppose that there is a genuine authoritative narrative of what Christmas is all about. I do not think anyone can definitively state what the true meaning of Christmas is, even if some Christians would like it to be so. The nature of our faith is such that God is speaking to us in stories, stories that sometimes make sense, sometimes make no sense at all, and sometimes make sense a long time later.
What I am trying to say is that God speaks to each one of us individually, as well as to the entire community. The nature of communication is such that each of us is engaged in interpreting what we hear. Whether it is the story of Christmas in general or even today’s sermon in particular, each of you will leave having taken something for yourself from my talk, something that even I may not have predicted. We always interpret the stories of our community through our individual experiences and our individual stories through the experience of our community.
Thus, when our community is telling a Christmas story without religious Christmas cards, we need not demand our story to be included as an authoritative one, or simply one among equals in the marketplace of stories. Rather, we need to tell our story in such a way that the community around us will be drawn to interpret it through our story. This interpretation might initially be uncomfortable to us but it may lead to some wonderful places.
This is what theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has named as honesty in theological discourse, when theology does not try to claim the total perspective. Theological discourse, Christianity, is always an open and never-ending conversation, always reforming story. Hence, when we talk about the true meaning of Christmas, we can only tell stories, not just one finalised story.
Today, I would also like to share two stories, about how different the meaning of Christmas can be.
The first story takes us to Bethlehem, not Bethlehem of two thousand years ago, but Bethlehem this December. Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, where Christian churches have decided to suspend all unnecessary festivities this year due to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza and the tensions in the West Bank itself. The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem of the Roman Catholic Church released a statement two weeks ago that an IDF sniper had killed two women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza. If you follow any Christian social media, you might have seen a photo of the nativity scene of the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, where baby Jesus is lying amidst the rubble of the destroyed building. Reminding us of the reality of many people in Gaza, Ukraine and elsewhere. The text written by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land that accompanied the photo reads, “God sent his only Son to be with us in the times of doubt, fear, and grief. God is with them in Bethlehem, He is with His children in Gaza, and he is with his children under the rubble.”
I want to use this story to reflect on those around us, in our society in Estonia, who, God be thanked, are not being killed in the bombings or battlefields but nonetheless suffer. Who are like Jesus, to whom there was no place to stay in the inn, and thus had to be born in poverty among the cattle, according to the story that some evangelists tell us. I want to remind us about the poor. According to the Office of Statistics Estonia, as of 2022 absolute poverty rate in Estonia is 3.5% of the population, which is a 150% increase in relation to the previous year. Even more shockingly, absolute poverty among 0 to 17-year-olds went from 1,3% (or 3,3 thousand) to 4.0% (or 10,7 thousand). I know that statistics are for the year 2022, but imagine 10 thousand children will celebrate Christmas in poverty in this country while we have the privilege to discuss the true meaning of Christmas.
This Christmas, now that gifts are already opened, at least some of the dinners are eaten; let us think about the story of baby Jesus under the rubble in Bethlehem or baby Jesus in absolute poverty in Estonia. What kind of story can we tell them? What kind of story is being told about our society that enables this? It is a long tradition of the church to interpret the birth of Jesus, the king of the Jews, not in the royal palace but in a cattle shed in Bethlehem, precisely to underline that God identifies himself with a human being and not just with any human being, but with the lowliest of them all.
The second story I want to tell today is the story of two conversations I had with the same person this year. The first one was back in autumn, in Kivi bar not far from here. A person shared with the group of people that I was a part of that they experience some anxieties about believing or not believing in anything in particular. Just last week, pretty much the same group was together, and this person stopped me and said, “Igor, I need to tell you this: I believe in God.”
This is a story of us Christians simply being there. In either of the situations, I could not offer much advice, nor could I tell a grand story of Christianity to try and convince or convert someone. All that I was able to do was to listen to a person in a moment of internal crisis, listen to the kind of story they were telling. And to take their story seriously.
Here, we learn that the true meaning of Christmas is not pushing a story about baby Jesus upon people; it is not about demanding Christmas cards with religious symbolism, but it is about telling a story, not in words but by us being there in the world. Letting our lives, or presence among our friends, colleagues, coursemates, and family members, tell a story instead of us. It is a story of acceptance, compassion, and understanding, and not of demand and judgment.
On the 21st of December, the Washington Post released an opinion piece titled “Christmas is cancelled in the land of Jesus’ birth.” Christmas is cancelled for far more people in the Holy Land, in Estonia, and across the world, amidst war, poverty, conflict, and family violence.
But in today’s reading, we read another story. A story that there is good news. That there is a “messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.” Who is it? Is it John the Baptist who came before Jesus, or is it Jesus himself? Those are the stories often told… But I think we can add another person to this list of potential candidates for the messengers of peace, good news and salvation. This messenger is you and I, each of us, who, in our friendship, love, and being there, brings the good news and peace and announces salvation to those around us. It is you and I when we preach not in words but in deeds.
(Photo: Triin Käpp).