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"With outstretched arms": National Christmas Celebrations 2012

The Sri Sathya Sai Service Organisation (UK) Christmas gathering
16th December, 2012 at Cheltenham Ladies' College
Rev’d Katie McClure

It was my privilege as a local hospital chaplain to be invited to lead the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at this year’s Christmas gathering, and while this piece is not about me, I hope you will bear with few words of personal reflection from one who was entering the world of Sri Sathya Sai Baba for the first time. A crash course in his mission, in the aims of the organisation and in the purpose of the gathering that day told me that here was a remarkable event and a remarkable group of people who embraced much that was consonant with my own thinking and who embodied a beautiful ideal of faith in action.

For me the most notable factor was the coming together of people of different faiths (and all the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds they represented) to celebrate what they have in common – a respect for God by all names and forms, an awareness of the divinity in each one of us, and the earnest desire to exercise those universal, divinely-inspired qualities of love, peace, truth, non-violence and right conduct in a way which leads to service. People young and old gathered from 110 groups across the 8 regions of the UK to join in worship and fellowship, and the warmth of the welcome for a newcomer such as myself was without equal. Faith in action.

Our focus for this short time together was the birth of Jesus – foretold by prophets and angels, anticipated for so long by so many (some of whom would fail to recognise his significance), sought out by some, feared by others and ultimately a surprise to all because of the humble nature of his birth. Our story was told in word and action as the children accompanied the nine readings with tableaux of the nativity, and as the service drew on we found ourselves standing beside the crib of Jesus, God made man – the mystery of the incarnation.

As a hospital chaplain I often stand beside a newborn in a cradle and wonder what this young life will hold. Well one of our answers is given in this celebration – the mystery of the incarnation – God with us and in us, played out in each one of our lives from birth till death. One of my treasured possessions is a wooden nativity scene in which the baby Jesus, rather than being wrapped up in his swaddling bands has his arms outstretched. I pondered on Jesus’ life and all this could mean: perhaps a metaphor for God’s loving embrace, open to all…or his hand outstretched in healing and forgiveness…or to touch the untouchables or reach out to the marginalised… to provide food for the hungry, to break bread and bless it…to bless us. Or the ultimate outstretching of his arms upon the cross – for Christmas would mean nothing without the pain of Good Friday and the joyful resolution of Easter. What Jesus gives up on the cross, he hands on to us by his Spirit so that our lives become his message and it is entrusted to us to stretch out our arms to the sick, the hungry and hurting, to those who have been pushed to the very margins of life.

So when Sri Sathya Sai Baba defines one of the aims of the organisation as ‘promoting the awareness of divinity in human beings’, we have good reason to look to this incarnation and to ask ourselves how God is made manifest in us. It may not matter how that faith is expressed – I write on the Epiphany when the Christian Church remembers three star-gazing, wise men who came to the cradle of Jesus and came not as Christians, nor did they leave as Christians, but they left inspired by the presence of God discerned in this child. Once upon a time someone looked into our cradle and wondered what we might grow up like. At Christmas we look into the cradle and see the God made man who gives us an answer which should inspire us to let our lives become his message. From what I can see, that is what the Sri Sathya Sai Service Organisation does so very well and long may it continue.

Rev. Katie McClure