"There's good eating on a tortoise."
It's a well-known fact that a recent convert can be something of a trial. Rather like an over enthusiastic Labrador puppy, they can't stop jumping up to tell us all about their new faith or interest, and they usually give us the dubious benefit of their shiny new insights as though they've invented the subject in question, rather than merely joined in with lots of other people who knew about it already. Generally we smile indulgently and hope their puppyhood will pass. Well I'm something of a convert at the moment, having somewhat belatedly discovered the delights of Terry Pratchett. I recently discovered that, not only is he very funny, he has quite a few astute observations to make about the world of faith. More to the point, I looked at the readings for this morning and groaned. The first and last are the sort of purple passages that we hear so often and the second is about as penetrable as a block of concrete.
And then I remembered Canon 56b/266 (a little known addition to Canon Law, which states that during the days immediately before Christmas when every hapless employee of Tesco is compelled to wear flashing reindeer antlers and a festive grin, the preacher may take liberties). And the next thing I remembered was Terry Pratchett, and in particular his novel Small gods. Without going into too much detail, in this story the Great God Om has suffered a reversal of fortunes and has found himself obliged to take on the form of a tortoise, with all its associated limitations. In addition, he discovers that tortoises are much prized as food. Eagles are prone to dropping them from a great height and cracking them open, but humans aren't much better. As more than one of them remarks, “There's good eating on a tortoise”. It's not easy being God in Discworld. Here's an example of what he has to put up with.
The Great God Om scurried towards the nearest statue, neck stretched, inefficient legs pumping. The statue happened to be himself as a bull, trampling an infidel, though this was no great comfort. It was only a matter of time before the eagle stopped circling and swooped. Om had been a tortoise for only three years, but with the shape, he had inherited a grab-bag of instincts, and a lot of them centred around a total terror of the one wild creature that had found out how to eat a tortoise.
Most of the book is taken up with poor Om's struggle to return to a more dignified state – which he does eventually manage. And when he does, he's enriched by the experience because he's able to know from the inside how his creatures think and feel. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation of God, there are parallels you must admit – but only up to a point. Om isn't a willing participant in creation and he can't wait to get out of it, while God in Christ is a direct and loving in-breaking of the divine into the created order. All the same, there are bits worth looking at and perhaps the twin themes of feeding and limitation might give us pause for thought.
When we do arrive at the crib, we marvel at the willing helplessness of God. A child, born even outside his own earthly home and facing the reality of human existence. God willingly divested of power and majesty, beginning a life of human limitations. This isn't God in disguise, but the Word made flesh, God continuing to speak creation into being through direct participation in it, and in that moment of divine participation, a deep and eternal intimacy between human and divine natures is made visible in the form of the Christ child. But the helplessness of God remains.
And then there's the aspect of feeding - “There's good eating on a tortoise”. When God is made flesh and pours himself willingly into his creation, it's not out a sense of curiosity - “I wonder what it feels like to be one of those”. It's an act of supreme self-giving love, God falling headlong into the world he created because his love was too great to remain at a distance, and because he longs to give himself to us in every way. In Terry Pratchett, it takes the eagle to shatter the shell of the tortoise, but in reality God breaks himself open to feed us, drawing us into his heart and sharing in our humanity.
Christmas is probably the most anticipated feast of the year – although if you haven't bought your crackers yet you might find they've been replaced by Easter eggs in the supermarket by now – but that utter self-giving of God as food for our souls is why we're here today and what we participate in at the altar this morning. God engages with humanity and in so doing leaves us identifiable windows, a thinning of the veil, through which we're offered glimpses of glory. We call them sacraments as a useful shorthand. To talk of God giving himself as food isn't to anticipate the Christmas season, but to rejoice at the lasting gift of himself to us at every Eucharist. In a couple of days we'll celebrate God's act of self-surrender as we keep Christmas, but today we can do what we should do at every opportunity – allow ourselves to feed on him at his altar because that's where he calls us to meet him and where he longs to give himself to us. The Eucharist is a well that never runs dry – or as they have it in Discworld, “There's good eating on a tortoise”.