The National Gallery in
I suspect that for many of us, the Christmas story is like that painting. We know about it but we have put it away at the back of our minds to be pulled out once a year. It is covered by years of neglect, it has been painted over and changed into a minor thing of little beauty or importance except commercial hype. We have lost sight of the possibility that under the over-familiarity and the Hallmark glitz there is something of great worth.
We are cynical about the gospel narrative – scholars tell us that there is no independent account of the census which sent Joseph and the very pregnant Mary to
The brief reading we heard from the letter of Titus sums up what is important in six words. “The grace of God has appeared”. The grace of God is always present, has always been present throughout eternity but now, in Jesus Christ, it has appeared. Jesus is God’s grace given physical, human form.
That is why we are here tonight. We know instinctively that somewhere underneath it all is something that we need, something that we long for, the knowledge of God’s grace and God’s salvation.
I love the word grace. It carries a number of meanings – it suggests beauty or elegance; it is pleasing or attractive; it can mean love and kindness or a favor bestowed by a superior; and finally it means mercy, clemency or pardon. God’s grace. God’s grace is found in Emmanuel – God-with-us. This is the astonishing news of Christmas which is always new because we so quickly forget – God is with us. God is elegantly and lovingly with us, holding out his hands to help us, always ready to welcome us into the mutual relationship with the divine which is the one thing that makes life fulfilling.
Let us briefly consider what it might mean to say that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. In his earthly life we are told that Jesus healed, he cast out demons, he taught people to love and forgive, he transformed lives and then, betrayed by his friends he died an excruciatingly painful death only to be resurrected a few days later. What does this tell us about God’s grace?
It tells us that the grace of God-with-us brings healing, freedom from the things which enslave us and transformed lives as we learn to love and to forgive. It tells us that God-with-us has experienced the pain and difficulty of being human and living in a physical body and that whenever we are betrayed and let down by our friends, whenever we are hurting and in pain, that God is especially present. It also tells us that death is not the end. So we can take risks and experiment because life goes on, life always triumphs.
In the busyness of everyday living, of the innumerable activities that make up our lives it is easy to forget God’s grace and to think that it is all up to us. But God’s grace is always available. It is never forced on us. Like any Christmas gift we have to receive it and open it. We all get many opportunities in our lives to turn towards God and ask for God’s grace. Each time we turn God down it becomes harder for us to open and receive her gift. But tonight, tonight is one of those special times when the curtain between the seen and the unseen is very thin. Tonight is an opportunity. Tonight God’s grace is offered to you.
The painting which was hidden under the centuries of grime and amateurish over-painting was the Salvator Mundi – the Savior of the World. In this icon Jesus has his right hand raised in blessing while in his left he holds a crystal globe. The Salvator Mundi is not holding a symbol of the individual soul, but a symbol of the planet. At this time of planetary crisis, when climate change is threatening life as we have known it, it is good to remember that God’s grace and salvation are not just for us as individuals.
God’s grace is available for the whole planet as we go through this tumultuous time. Sometimes people ask me why God allows suffering to happen. For God to intervene without our invitation would be to remove the gifts of freewill and creativity which he has given us. God does not do the work for us - she does it with us. God-with-us, Emmanuel.
So the big question is: are you willing to accept God’s gift of grace and to work in co-creation with him to transform yourself and the planet? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of restoration, co-operating with God in clearing away all the blocks that prevent you from being a clear channel for God’s grace to flow through you into the world bringing healing and transformation? Are you willing to take your part in bringing God’s grace to our troubled planet?
Are you willing to be part of the great work of bringing the true face of Salvator Mundi to the world?