Morland 4th Sunday of Advent 2016:
Isaiah 7.10-16; Matthew 1.18-end

One of many tragic stories on the BBC last week came not from Aleppo but from Tennessee in the United States. Eric Schmitt-Matzen was born sixty years ago, on the 6th of December, St Nicholas Day. Perhaps because of that, as well as being a mechanical engineer and company president, he is also a professional Santa. One day recently he was called to a local hospital where a terminally-ill five year old boy said he wanted to see Santa Claus. Mr Schmitt-Matzen, dressed up as Santa, went to the hospital, and gave the boy 'a present and a big hug before holding him as he died'. He told the BBC that this was the fourth time he had visited a dying child who had wanted to see Santa. "The little guys and girls have a hard time fathoming the whole concept of death," he said, "but they know Christmas". This five-year-old boy, he added, "was more concerned about missing Christmas than he was about dying. All he knew was he didn't feel good". He asked Santa 'where he was going after he died, and Mr Schmitt-Matzen told him that he was "Santa's Number One elf" and he would be welcomed. The child then sat up to give his visitor a hug and he asked one final question: "Santa, can you help me?" Moments later, he died in Mr Schmitt-Matzen's arms.'

The death of a child, whether in the ruins of Aleppo or a hospital in Tennessee, is always tragic. Those who, after years in and out of hospital, die in their teens, their carers tell us, often have a depth of understanding denied to the rest of us: but at five years old you must, as Mr Schmitt-Matzen said, "have a hard time fathoming the whole concept of death". So wasn't it the best thing that could have happened in these tragic circumstances? For Santa to reassure the child that he was "Santa's Number One elf" and that after he died, he would be welcomed by him?

Wasn't it the best thing? Or are we perhaps a little uneasy about this? More uneasy maybe than we would have been if the little boy's own mother, who was also there, had taken him in her arms and assured him that whatever happened he would always be safe in the arms of Jesus. That after all, is what the experience of countless Christians, including presumably the original St Nicholas, gives us more reason to believe in and hope for, than any assurances about Santa and his elves.

But before we go down that road, perhaps we should pause. 'When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child", wrote St Paul; and St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, once said that God had always been teaching him 'as a schoolteacher teaches a child'.

And how does a schoolteacher teach a child? Well essentially by beginning from what the child already knows, and by showing how what needs to be learnt is like that, but also different from it. The teacher is trying both to reassure and to stimulate the child's imagination - until at last it begins to take in the new knowledge. This was also Jesus' own method of teaching: by telling stories about ordinary aspects of everyday life, he stimulated the imagination of his hearers, until they began to take in, that what they already knew had deeper, richer, stranger and more hopeful implications than they had ever dreamt.

Beginning from what the child already knows, and showing how what needs to be learnt is like that, but also different from it. But if that is how a schoolteacher teaches a child, their teaching will go in vain unless something else is present. The child also needs to trust the teacher, trust that the teacher knows what he or she is supposed to know. Without trust, there can be no learning, at least not with that teacher. And so too in the case of Jesus' teaching. It would take a long time for the richer, deeper, stranger, and more hopeful implications of what Jesus taught to be taken in by the imagination of his disciples - for those on the Emmaus road, not until he was fleetingly made known to them in the breaking of the bread. But all this could not even have begun to dawn on them had they not begun to trust Jesus sufficiently to say in their hearts, with Peter: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

All knowledge begins in trust, trust that by going on asking the kind of questions science asks, more and more can be learnt about the universe we inhabit: but trust also that beyond the outermost limits of human knowledge, all things make sense in the mystery of God. The good schoolteacher, I suggested earlier, is able to teach the child not only by stimulating the child's imagination, but also by first reassuring the child, not only that the schoolteacher knows what he or she is supposed to know, but also that he or she believes in the child and the child's capacity to learn what they need to learn.

Faith assures us likewise that the mystery of God believes in God's human children, and in our capacity to learn what we need to learn. In order to reassure us that we may learn, glimpses of the mystery are given to us in terms of what we already know, but need to know more deeply by using our imagination. Just so, in today's Gospel, St Matthew uses his imagination to reinterpret the vision of Isaiah in today's Old Testament reading. Isaiah's vision of a young woman bearing a son to be named Immanuel looked forward to a time in the near future when such a young man would grow up in a world at peace, and the two neighbouring kings of whom King Ahaz of Judah was now terrified would be dead and forgotten.

In its time, Isaiah's call to trust the Lord and see beyond the defeats of petty politics was a sign of the Old Testament prophets' deepening sense that the LORD, whose ways were not human ways, nevertheless was trustworthy and true, and believed in his children, however often they turned away from him. Matthew's imaginative reinterpretation of Isaiah's vision deepened this sense still further. The early Christians' experience of Jesus in and among them, first in the days of his flesh and now in his living spirit, taught them that by trusting him in the ordinary events of everyday life, more would yet be learnt, fragmentarily in time, but in eternity by knowing even as they were known, until at last they saw him as he is, and thus became like him.

Now needless to say we are not anywhere near that yet. In the midst of the journey we may often feel that we are in the middle of a dark wood; and the tragic deaths of children, whether in a hospital in Tennessee or if it were possible, even more in the ruins of Aleppo, is for many of us the greatest challenge of all, to faith in a God who believes in God's human children.

Yet where else, as we look forward in Advent, can we glimpse God's face, except in that of Mary's helpless baby, who when he grew up, went about doing good and teaching wisdom, and in the end died defeated? What happened thereafter is deeply mysterious to the human intellect, but also deeply real in prayer and worship and the community of faith. And if we ask where God is, in this dark world, the words of Jesus must forever return to haunt or encourage us: inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. The words with which the professional Santa reassured the dying five-year-old may not have reflected humanity's deepest insights into the mystery of God. But that God in Christ was there, where Christ's dying little brother was, and where charity and love were, there can be no doubt, nor any doubt also that the crucified is there too, even in Aleppo.