One of the facets of having an English language service in a foreign country is that we have people of many different nationalities attending our services. Like the Christians that Saint Peter wrote to in Asia Minor we are exiles and aliens (1Peter 1.1 and 2.11). A common term for Christian communities was paroikia, or ‘place of refuge or exile’. This word is where the English word ‘Parish’ comes from. The followers of this new faith gathered together in a desire to worship, but also in a desire to experience a certain solidarity in a world where they were a minority and scattered far and wide by occasional persecutions.
When we are in a foreign place we do the same – people tend to gather with those of like mindset: The Caledonian society enabling Scottish folk to gather and do…whatever Scottish people do, the Rugby 7s a time to get rugby fanatics together, the Christian church a place to get Christian fanatics together to do…whatever Christian folk gather and do. Our gathering at church for Christmas is an expression of our faith, but also it helps us experience a certain solidarity and encouragement in numbers where in some of our home countries they seem to be leaving God out entirely, and in this country we feel our daily life sometimes affected powerfully by Islam – we are not atheists after all, and we are not Muslim, we, well we are Christians. We gather to celebrate and identify with our Christian heritage, we have a common feeling, we can feel comfortable together that even from all different countries of the world, there is a common song in our hearts as regards the importance of Jesus Christ in our world.
In the English parish system the word parish has come to mean something solid, as unmoving as parish boundaries, and a symbol for establishment and old fashioned stability, a marking out of our own territory, a hangover from a world which now seems to find geographical boundaries increasingly irrelevant as we travel and communicate without any reference to such boundaries, local and even international. The origins of the word are almost the opposite of all this – yes it marks a place of refuge where Christians gather and feel safe, but the place was not of permanance but a place where Christians gathered as temporary residents in a country not their own, as exiles. They gathered as followers of a new king that the world was yet to recognise. They gathered not to mark out territory, but to celebrate the existence of a world that, ultimately, had no national boundaries, Jew or Gentile – one king, one people, a royal priesthood who would light the way to God.
All this is especially fine at Christmas time when record numbers of people traditionally come to church. We celebrate the new born king with fine music and food and presents and whatever else. We celebrate our own traditions at home as far as we can, usually with music and food that are traditional in our home countries, and we gather with our fellow countrymen to remind ourselves of home. The delight and testing of an English language service is that people come from many different nations, which makes it impossible for any hymn chooser to choose music from home from each home that we all come from! Brits may love seeing a favourite carol come up on the screen and take a deep breath ready for the first line, only to discover, Oh! it’s that American tune! Americans do the same but may discover it’s an African tune we’ve got today. Our parish, our place of exile is not home, and yet, it is our parish, the place where we belong for the present, because we DO have a common story and a common heritage and a home – we know Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem.
Let us share his story together again this Christmas, let us take refuge in him, let us find our identity in that babe in the manger, whose life was to become so important for us. We live as foreigners and aliens in a strange place, and yet here in this place we bear common witness to Emmanuel born in the manger, God’s Wisdom come close to us, the Lord of Might come to set us free, the Key of David to open the door to heaven, the Rod of Jesse to deliver us from our enemies, the Dawn from on high to break upon us who dwell in darkness with the light of that great new day, we bear witness to the Desire of Nations, the King of Peace, who has come to his people and set them free.
These are all great titles for Jesus Christ and today we celebrate his birth and God coming to us. With God we are at home wherever we are because wherever we are we are in his kingdom, his principality, our home. Even in Exile we can carry the feeling of being at home here whether that exile be among work colleagues or family who are all of a different faith, or worse of no faith.
In all the extras of this Christmas season, I hope you will spend a little time on your own at the manger, finding yourself, your joy, and your home, in him.