Lost in Translation
David McEvoy, Reader, 25 December 2017, Christmas Morning
Things get lost in translation. You may have heard the story of the German translation of Rabbie Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’. The second line addresses the dish as ‘Great chieftain o the puddin’ race’ and, evidently, if it is translated into German and then back into English, it becomes ‘Mighty Führer of the sausage people!’
I myself had an awkward moment many years ago in a little café in Volendam, a village on the dykes outside Amsterdam. I was there with my Dutch friend, Ron, and we had just enjoyed coffee and traditional apple pastries. I had been learning Dutch and wanted to show it off. I spoke to the owner, thinking I was ordering the bill, but my friend rapidly intervened. He apologised to the owner and explained to me that I had actually invited the proprietor to go outside for a fight. I had asked to ‘settle up’ which in colloquial Dutch means ‘come outside to sort things out’!
It is difficult to find the right words in a foreign language. But it can also be difficult to find the right words even in our own language.
God has spoken to us
Today is the day we celebrate the fact that God has spoken to us. And he has spoken to us in a language we can understand, the only way we can understand – as a human being. Sharing our humanity and our life with us. In this baby born in a manger.
The writers of the gospels use words as best they can to get across to us, just who this person, Jesus is. In our readings this morning, Luke writes about a manger and shepherds to tell us that this was an ordinary person, born in humble circumstances. But he also gives us angels and heavenly songs to tell us that there was also something very special about this baby.
We should recognise this as an attempt to talk about a great truth using the limitations of human language. The big story, the truth underlying all these words is the simple fact that God is saying to us ‘See this baby, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, he is what I am really like. If you see him, you see me. If you know him, you know me.’ This man ate with sinners, healed outcasts, washed the feet of his disciples and, because he spoke of the coming of God’s kingdom, he was condemned to die the death of a criminal. This is what God is like. God’s language is not the language of anger or power, but, simply, the language of love.
Magnifying and focussing
Things often go wrong at Christmas. Libby Jackson who is the most senior woman in the UK spaceflight sector said last week ‘The International Space Station knows when it is Christmas. It has a way of saving up all its problems for the festive season’. I am sure we can all identify with that!
Christmas acts like a lens, magnifying and bringing into sharp focus the things that really concern us. It can magnify our joys, but it can also sharpen our fears and guilt, highlight our
loneliness and our regrets, and make us feel the loss of loved ones most keenly. The celebrations and consumption also throw into sharp contrast the pain and suffering in the world, the poverty all around us, the anguish caused by the recent terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire, and the violence and hunger in places such as South Sudan, Yemen and Myenmar.
A still small voice
But, through all of this, through all the celebration and through all the darkness, God’s voice breaks through, in the still small voice of a baby in a manger. The voice which as an adult will say: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’
To quote a former Dean of Westminster Abbey, at Christmas God is saying: ‘Trust me, I give you my word that I am on your side. Even when things are at their darkest, I am the God who is with you, in your joys, and in your difficulties and eventually in your dying. For I have been there before you in my Word that was once made flesh.’
Someone said that we are what we eat but we are also what we speak. When I nearly got into a completely unintended fight in Holland I was what I spoke – a stupid young Englishman too keen to show off. And God is what he speaks – in Jesus Christ he speaks the language of love. A love that holds nothing back, shares everything with us and requires nothing of us but that we accept it and welcome it.
I pray that each and everyone of you will have a very happy Christmas and that through all the celebrations and through the range of emotions the season conjurs up, (that) you and your loved ones will hear this language of love. And I pray that in it you will find: healing for what is past and lost; joy in the present; and hope for the future.
And, at the risk of starting a fight with any brothers or sisters from the Netherlands in the congregation: gelukkig kerstmas (Happy Christmas).
David McEvoy, Reader, Christmas morning 2017