I asked people what they thought I should say today, and lots of people said it needed to be a big. Some people said I needed to make it a cracker.
So, here we are! A big cracker!
Produce big Cracker
Only the English could find a toilet roll and gun powder amusing!
Now the more historically aware of you, might think of the Christmas cracker as a marketing invention of Thomas Smith and his two sons in Victorian times. A simple device to sell more of his sweets, that then took on a life of its own. Those of more bar-humbug temperaments may also like to inform your Christmas dinner guests that the tradition of wearing decorative hats on 25 December goes back to the Roman celebrations of the feast of Saturnalia on that date many centuries ago. But then, the Church has a long history of appropriating pagan symbols and festivals for its own purposes, and I don’t see why we should stop now, even as we object to modern day pagans doing the same thing back again.
So, I want to suggest to you this morning that the humble Christmas cracker is in fact replete with a profound Christian symbolism and a worthy addition to the festive dinner table.
Let’s see what’s inside. Any volunteers to pull it?
Three things: jokes, gifts, and hats.
Of course most famously Crackers are traditionally filled with some of the worst jokes known in the whole of Christendom
Q. What do you call a bunch of sheep rolling down a hill?
A. A lambslide.
Q. Why shouldn’t you have a barbeque on a roof?
A. Because the steaks would be too high.
Q. Why were the ancient Egyptians the first people to invent the aeroplane?
A. Because they were highly skilled in Pharo-Dynamics
But actually originally crackers contained love poems – they were taken out allegedly because of certain embarrassing Christmas dinner incidents when a rather more explicit proclamation of ardent love was given to Granny by mistake. But nevertheless, originally the Cracker was a message of love. And the message that someone loves you is from the love poem the church proclaims still today.
For man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Second, a good cracker includes a gift and I have to say you can tell a lot about the quality of your host from the quality of your Christmas cracker gifts – I’m just saying. This is not just old plastic tat from China, this is John Lewis old plastic tat from China. Of course in Farnham you would expect nothing but the finest of that tat.
I once received a set of small screwdrivers. Scurrilous insinuations regarding having screws loose brushed to one side, I realised of course that this reminds us that our Lord was in fact a carpenter, one of the people, acquainted with sorrows and of no great account as Isaiah fortold.
Others have been blessed with a shoe horn in their cracker– symbolising for us the way that this morning ministers up and down the country are shoehorning more and more unlikely metaphors and analogies into their sermons in a quest to keep everyone’s attention. This is a most unedifying practise and we shall move swiftly on.
I’m reminded of two other gifts of much greater significance. First, a mirror. Now you will be grateful I’m sure that I am going to avoid the idea that this is because Christmas is a time of reflection. In fact it is more because in Jesus we find the image of our true selves. A mirror not to help us preen and protect the mask we present to the world around us, but a mirror for seeing into the depth of our souls and our nature. Looking into the manger we find our self returning the open and innocent gaze of the child who sees us as we truly are, and knowing and loving us that way, invites us to explore more fully what our true nature might be.
The other important gift is dice or a set of tiny playing cards. Einstein famously said that God does not play dice with the universe. As world saving plans go, an illegitimate peasant child living in obscurity, emerging for a brief, if explosive, ministry, before coming to a tragic end seems a little risky. Crackers, perhaps.
But it is God’s gamble, God’s high stakes bet, God’s throw of the dice on each of us. God takes risks because love is a risky business, full of the probabilities of rejection and hurt, but a hand of cards that we will repeatedly play ourselves in the hope finding a full house, or a King or Queen of hearts. Love is a risky business, and we have to hope that the snapping sound you can hear is of an overly stressed metaphor giving up under the strain and not the sound of a heart breaking. For Jesus shows us that God believes that however much of a long shot or outside bet you or I might think we are, God will still have a punt on you.
When hats were made of newspaper, in an episode of The Good Life, they suddenly became controversial, when Margot was given one folded from the Daily Mirror. In every home, though, there’s often dinner table debate as to whether or not it was required wearing, or whether certain family members were or were not going to lower themselves and put aside their dignity for a paper crown. I’d love to tell you that the paper crown is the perfect symbol for a king born in a manger. A king sent not to be served, but to serve. That the very fragility of the paper crown demands we reflect on the gentleness of Jesus’ Kingship. But if I did that I would have to agree to wear one of these silly things, and that’s not happening. So instead I’ll tell you that in fact the action of setting aside your crown is symbolic of the Christians response to Jesus. Our response to Christmas, which is to take off the ridiculous paper crowns we wear that help us pretend that we are the kings and queens of our own world, that we are our own greatest authority. For it reminds us that we will not find that the peace of Christmas is a reality until:
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
I’ve told you quite a story this morning, but Christmas is a time for tall tales. Of angel choirs and shepherds, of wandering stargazers, of stables and kings, but a time too when we can allow ourselves to wonder what it might be like to allow ourselves to suspect that magic and mystery may not have left our world and our lives after all. And that even the most mundane of objects may come to tell us a great story, of who we are, and of who we might become.
And if this story is allowed its small place at the festive dinner table, well you may just find, you don’t just have a good Christmas, you have a cracker.