Sermon for Midnight Mass of Christmas 2018
24th Dec 2018
Midnight Mass 2018
It is refreshing that we should all be here in church at midnight. Tonight we join Christian congregations of billions around the world, as the night deepens, and we welcome a new day which brings to us all a sense of renewal and refreshment and enjoyment as we witness the Birth of Christ. Even the House of Commons takes a break from the agony of Brexit to observe Christmas as a time to stop and, most importantly, to rest. Amid all the uncertainty that we have to live with we, like the shepherds, we now ‘stop and stay’ to wonder at those things that came to past two thousand years ago, and which come to life for us in tonight’s liturgy of Midnight Mass.
It is difficult for us all to know in each of our own lives how precisely things will turn out. We may often find ourselves fretting about the future. I remember the one great regret expressed by someone of one hundred years old that they had spent so much time worrying and wasting energy and time over things beyond their control. Even so, the world’s cup seems perpetually to be half full and half empty, and we, as its citizens are called upon to accept more and more dire uncertainty as a fact of life. A grace once said in Yorkshire after dinner could well be spoken in homes up and down the land this Christmas:
Thank you Lord for what we’ve had/ It could ha’ been better, but times is bad.
And yet like those things in our own personal lives which remain unresolved or incomplete Christians are being called as we pass through things temporal, so may not lose sight of things eternal. This is the broader picture which places our lives and the life of our world in the profound context of God’s creative, purposeful and everlasting love .
There is uncertainly in the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are themselves travelling to Bethlehem as displaced persons, and there is no certainty that they will find a place to stay for the night, there is no telling how Mary’s confinement will take place or under what circumstances, and no telling how things will turn out for them in the shorter and the longer term. King Herod poses a perpetual threat even to their lives. And yet it is within these circumstances that God chooses to reveal himself. The child, whose coming was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is to be born in this way and in no other way. The travails of this and of every age will find in this birth a place of truth. From the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And 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!
That place of truth is to be found in the stable at Bethlehem, in the sight of the babe, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger; in the journeying and the vision of the shepherds and of the wise men and in the company of the angels. In the name Emmanuel, too, the name which means ‘God-With-Us’. For Christians this is iconic and permanent: for it is through the child Jesus that ‘the woes of sin and strife’ and all that remains unresolved will find their true outcome in God’s deep and lasting peace. .
Such peace is not bought cheaply but at great cost. It is brought about in and through the constraints of the time and not apart from it, as in some kind of spiritual dream. It is established in all the uncertainties and struggles of our existence. This peace is experienced in the glory of God shining in the face of the infant Jesus. It is come as sure and recognisable. The medieval theologian William of Saint Thierry once said that God – from the time of Adam – saw that his grandeur provoked resistance in Man, that we felt limited in our own being and threatened in our freedom. Therefore God chose a new way. He became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in order that love might manifest itself vulnerably. Now – this God who has become a child says to us – “You can no longer fear me, you can only love me”.
In the birth of Christ the human soul, long suppressed, weighed down, burdened by the fear of the unknown and the woes of sin and strife, may now find joyful utterance as it reaches out to God in faith and in joy:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethleh