Rev. Andrew Cunnington
24th December 2014
And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

As darkness fell on Christmas Eve, the faithful people who had gathered in the church, each lit a small candle.

They were remembering years gone by when the church would be full to overflowing at Midnight Mass and it really did feel as if you could reach out and touch God.

The tiny Christian community had tried to stay faithful, but now many had fled, and in the last few weeks those who remained had been ordered out of their homes by the invading troops. This was the only place of safety for them now, The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, Bethlehem. Not for the first time it had become a home for refugees.

They had been living in the church for a fortnight now, these one hundred and twenty or so souls with candles in their hands, and in the last few days they had become completely surrounded by those who wanted them gone.

They flinched at the gunfire in the town, they jumped at the crash of another rock thrown against the church wall.

In the end they had barricaded themselves in. Not a hard task for the entrance to the Church of the Nativity is so small, you have to bend low to enter.

So here they sat trying to pray, trying to sing. Someone had a radio, so they had picked up the terrible news of Peshawah and the death of the children in Pakistan. They wondered what it must be like to live in South Korea right next to that dangerous border. They heard that things weren’t good in Gaza again and many were worried about friends and relatives.

So they raised their prayers as best they could, hearts beating for fear of their own safety.

They had just read the first chapter of John’s Gospel and some were beginning to wonder if the light really did shine in the darkness.

There was a sudden battering at the door, a round of gunfire that was too close for comfort. Mothers gathered their children close to them. Fathers looked on anxiously.

They were just to begin the prayers of intercession, when suddenly they noticed a figure in the shadows of the darkened church. It was the Immam from the mosque that overlooked Manger Square.

He could see they were startled to see him there. “ I’ve come to join you” he whispered “ I’ve come to pray, because, you know, we are people of peace too. I’ve come to pray for all those children in Pakistan because I share your indignation. Nowhere in our Holy Book does it say that children…..”

He could not finish his sentence, but one of the old Greek Orthodox Priests beckoned him forward, and lit a candle for him. “ Come into our light then, Come,” he said.

“We should go to the place of his birth to make our prayers” said one of the elders “ Will you lead the way Father”

So down they went, picking their way through the darkness of the building until they reached the low entrance and windy stairs that would take them to the place where they say the Christ Child would be born.

They crowded into that tiny place, silently, their candles casting strange patterns on the wall.

Their prayers covered every heartache imaginable, close to home and far away., and many were moved to tears.

“One hundred years ago” said an ancient Priest out of the blue, “in the great war in Europe, they came out of their trenches on Christmas night and sung “Silent Night” in No Man’s Land, can you imagine that”

“This feels like a trench tonight, this stable place underground, and the guns firing out there” said a young Mother, and she stood up and started to sing and as she did so everyone with a candle joined in too:

Silent Night! Holy Night! All is Calm! All is bright! Round Yon Virgin Mother and Child! Holy Infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace! Sleep in heavenly peace.
And as happens when you sing something beautiful, or make a prayer that means something, there is always a silence at the end that is deep and penetrating, until all you could hear, all you could hear, was…… a baby cry!

Not in the manger, not in this stable place but further underground, right under the church.

The gunfire out in Bethlehem was growing stronger tonight, the stones flung at the church were getting heavier, but the cry of the child, that’s what held them.

“In the caves of St Jerome” they started to whisper to one another “ That’s where the baby….that where the cry”

For underneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, there are tunnels and chapel spaces and rock hewn chambers, where for thirty five years , it is said St Jerome wrote the Gospels first and set the living word down on paper. Sometimes when pilgrims go there, they find this to be the most sacred place.

So now this Christian community in Bethlehem followed the infant cry, down deeper under ground, until they came to the caves and right there, by a stone altar where it is said Jerome began to write, right there, was a baby and its Mother.

The Mother was not dressed in blue, the child was not in a manger, but he was new born and he did shine with the light that darkness cannot overcome.

Then they heard a massive crash from the church above, stonework caving in from the relentless assault.

“Take him” said the Mother to the old Priest “Take him in your arms, and go out there, for was it not written in this place that “The Word became flesh”

They looked at one another and wondered. Could a child once again be the light of the world.

The Immam stepped forward alongside the Priest “ If you go, I will stand with you, for the sake of my people and yours”

“And does it not say, does it not say, in my holy scripture” for now stepped forward a teenage boy in a strange black suit and hat “ does it not say, in our Prophet, “and a little child shall lead them”, a shoot of the stump of Jesse, that on people who sat in darkness, that a light has shined, it does say, it does say that, said the young Jew excitedly, and I will stand with you for the sake of my people and yours, for we want an end to all this strife, an end to walls and check points, we do, believe me.

“I have my Koran” said the Immam… “ I have my sacred scrolls” said the Jewish Boy and “I have my New Testament and this child” said the old Priest almost laughing now.

“For you are all faithful people of the book” said Mary, for Mary is who she was “and the word has become flesh and dwells among us.

Silently and not knowing if they were walking into life or death, the three leaders of the world’s great faiths, trod gingerly through the wreckage of the fallen roof of the Church of the Nativity towards the encircling enemy in Manger square where they held their black flags high.

Behind them, Mary whispered to the young woman who had sung “ I have picked my way through broken rocks once before” she said “ it was an empty tomb on the edge of the Holy City and didn’t our Alleluia’s ring on that day”.

“Tomb, Trench, or church, it matters not does it” said the young woman, “not if we all believe the Lord of Hosts is with us”

And in St Matthew’s Church in the cold light of Redhill, Priest and people wondered at the story, and if it could be true.

If the people of the light can find a unity” said their Vicar “ they will probably find it in adversity. They will probably find it when the chips are down. And maybe it is our inability to find unity with one another that prevents the grace of God from taking hold in this war torn world.

So maybe Christmas is the time to find in the shadows those people you would not naturally share the light with and to kindle the flame with them. Some look like shepherds. Some look like wise men. Some are angels. Some might even appear like donkey’s to you. But they deserve the light.

And when we share the light, Herod’s men won’t stand a chance.!

ISAIAH 11:6 ISAIAH 9:2 JOHN 1: 1-14