Sermon for the Christmas Mass of Midnight 2017
24th Dec 2017
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2017
And this will be a sign for you: You will find the child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. Luke 2.12
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, there lies a great sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. The giant image, fashioned in lead, is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. But the sculpture also speaks to London and the world. Its sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing lovingly behind her infant, directing us down to the little child, while Jesus has his arms held out to us in a gesture of exuberant openness. Here, Jesus opens his arms to greet us, as if waiting to run up to us hold us and embrace us. We are drawn toward this image because it promises something profoundly human and yet is directed away from itself. I well remember as a four year old meeting by own mother outside the hospital following the birth of my little brother, and she, while holding the baby, managed to clasp my shoulders for a great hug.
In this little child Jesus, God has come to show us that he has become one of us as we are beckoned closer to receive his embrace. And we are being called simply to respond. It’s ironic that as the crowds stumble out of the back of John Lewis’ Store in Oxford Street, laden with Christmas goodies, the divine embrace is being offered to them on the other side Square. I am minded of the words of Shirley Temple, the child star who once said, “I stopped believing in Santa when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph”. And yet John Lewis continue to remind us, unlike Shirley Temple, that their goods are ‘never knowingly undersold’.
I have here a plaque which is a copy of similar plaques which decorate the walls of a 500 hundred year old foundling hospital in Florence, Italy. It is called ‘The Hospital of the Innocents’ the Ospedale degli Innocenti, where, as at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital down the road in Bloomsbury there was a place provided, a ledge where unwanted babies were to be left in its care. The image of the baby Jesus is inspirational and stands for all of us. It’s an image which is all embracing. But we notice two things about this particular image. First, the way in which the baby, Jesus, is depicted as open armed and in a generous gesture of greeting. God’s love is open and boundless, it seeks to find us. It is the love ‘beyond all telling’ which is saying to our world “However you may mess things up, however you may put up barriers against my love, however you might betray me in little or greater ways, I love you and I will never forsake you. I will show my mercy to you and I will forgive you. You are mine and I am yours, and in this you can trust; in this you can place all your confidence and hope.This is now the message of Christmas. This is God’s gift to us tonight. God is not strange and distant but close to us. As this church enters upon its 130th year, it can tell stories of countless individuals for whom this church has felt for them that God has come that bit closer.
The second thing we notice about this image is that the baby is bound by swaddling bands, and this is an image for God’s Son, who as becoming human, will be bound by his fate. As the giver of God’s love, the grown man Jesus Christ will experience human love returned in some kind, but also his love, the love of God, rejected even unto his own death. He will be ‘bound in setting others free’. And yet the prevailing energy in the coming of Christ to an ambivalent world is one in which we experience God the Father’s love as an open one. It is a love, like all true loves, which takes a risk on love and its possible rejection for the sake of that same love.
Tonight the Christian world celebrates the God who offers the world himself in the shape and form and being of this little child. Many more people than Christians realise that the birth of Jesus speaks also to an understanding beyond the confines of the Christian religion and into a truer understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to take a risk on love. Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves. The open arms of the Christ child are that ‘something else’. God’s sign. They beckon to us now as we sing in the words of the well-known carol (with some excitement):
‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel’