18 December 2023

The TC's Christmas message 2023: This thing...

Commissioner Anthony Cotterill

A photo of Anthony Cotterill, Territorial Commander

Territorial Commander Commissioner Anthony Cotterill shares a Christmas message.

‘Let’s go to Bethlehem,’ the shepherds say one to another after the angel of the Lord has interrupted their usual nightly sheep watching. ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened’ (Luke 2:15).  

It’s possibly one of the most understated comments in all Scripture! ‘This thing’?! They’ve just been told, surprising and shocking as it may have seemed, that: ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:11 and 12). After the angels leave, they arrive at the above conclusion: let’s go and see this thing! 

Now, to be fair to the shepherds, and the fact that often some things get lost in translation, I can’t believe that when they refer to ‘this thing’, they mean the baby! More likely they mean ‘this event’. 

And what an event it was! ‘The Saviour promised long’, to quote a much-loved carol. ‘Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness’, to quote a more recent account. The shepherds did not hang around – Luke explains that they hurried off and they soon found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who as we all know was lying in a manger with no crib for a bed. 

I am old enough to easily remember in excess of 60 Christmases – but it has taken me until this Christmas to realise something very significant and striking about ‘this thing’. 

Some years ago, following in the footsteps of the shepherds, I had the privilege to visit Bethlehem. I learnt on that visit to the Holy Land that ‘Bet’ means ‘house of’ – so Bethany means ‘house of the poor’ or ‘house of figs’, Bethsaida means ‘house of fishing’ and Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ (lechem is the Hebrew word for bread).  

How interesting that, in the life and teaching of Jesus, bread should feature so prominently. So much symbolism and significance flow from it. ‘Give us today our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11). ‘Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?’ (Matthew 15:33). ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish’ (Matthew 14:17).  

‘While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take and eat; this is my body”’ (Matthew 26:26). ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35). ‘I am the living bread that came down from Heaven’ (John 6:51). ‘The two told what had happened on the [way to Emmaus], and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread’ (Luke 24:35). 

This is what Christmas is truly about! Not a sentimental jingle through wonderland but this great thing that Christ is born for you: good news! Life-giving bread for everyone! As a consequence of ‘this thing’, you live – without him you perish. 

Queen Marie Antoinette’s alleged retort after being told that the French peasants were revolting because they had no bread – ‘Let them eat cake’ – does not hold! There is no alternative! Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world, is the Bread of Life.  

So here is the significant and striking truth that has stared me in the face for more than 60 years, but I never appreciated: Jesus was placed in a manger! My schoolboy French helps me out here. The verb manger in French is ‘to eat’! A manger is a feeding box or trough.

A photo of a manger

Here’s the deep meaning of Christmas: Jesus, given to feed us. Jesus, delivered to give us life, to sustain us, to enable us to flourish and to know life in all its fullness. The Saviour of the world born in the place known as the house of bread and, as the Bread of Life, laid and presented in, of all things, a manger!

The shepherds hurried to experience ‘this thing’ and repeatedly so should we – to worship and adore, of course, but also to feast and be filled by the One who is our pattern for living, the One who we desire to be like. General Albert Orsborn left us some wonderful lines in the songs he penned. Song number 610 says:

My life must be Christ’s broken bread,
My love his outpoured wine,
A cup o’erfilled, a table spread
Beneath his name and sign,
That other souls, refreshed and fed,
May share his life through mine.

Could it be that, as we celebrate Christmas, we have a renewed experience of Christ as the Bread of Life? Crucially, let us remember that Christ now desires to share his life ‘through mine’ and, as a glorious consequence, other people may also be refreshed and fed by Christ’s broken bread: our lives. 

Now there’s a thing!

Grateful for occasional opportunities to share messages with you in our time as territorial leaders, Commissioner Gill joins me in thanking Salvationist readers for your prayers and encouragement. We wish you all a very fulfilling Christmas and a blessed commencement to 2024!

Written by

Anthony Cotterill

Commissioner Anthony Cotterill

Territorial Commander

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