Sermon for Christmas Midnight Mass 2016
When the radio reminded me on Wednesday morning that it was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, I did have a feeling of relief. Whew. At last this year of turmoil and loss is nearly over. Celebrities die all the time, but in one calendar year to lose David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen and the beloved radio rabbi Lionel Blue, to name just of a few of the best known, has been a depressing experience.
And I don’t need to rehearse the political upsets that have confounded the pundits and divided families and friends in 2016. Quite apart from election results, the misery of migrants risking their lives for shelter, Syrians under siege in their own country, and Berliners cut down in a Christmas market have filled the news and broken our hearts. So if the days are beginning to lengthen, imperceptibly but definitely, I am tempted, irrationally, to feel that we have turned a corner at last and can look forward to a fresh start in 2017.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with Christmas. Or does it? What is the connection of our celebration in church tonight with the world that suffers and celebrates but has no faith in the Christmas story?
Christians are famous for defending this holiday from all comers. “Jesus is the reason for the season”, we like to proclaim, and we remind people that there would be no happy winter holiday without the gospel. Well, that’s just nonsense, to be honest.
The combination of bad times with bad weather is as old as human life on earth. In the darkest days of midwinter, every culture has felt the need to light a fire and offer defiance to the night. The sort of pagans who turn out on Primrose Hill may be a 20th century invention, but their instinct to celebrate the turning of the year and the gradual reappearance of light and life is a profoundly ancient one.
An American theologian called Robert Hunt writes, “God was there before a missionary church inserted the story of the birth of Christ into the midwinter season. God was there in all those pagan celebrations, and lights in evergreen trees, and yule logs and feasts and gift exchanges. God was there in all those human feelings roused by the desire that light once again conquer darkness. God was there in all the ways that human hearts leap with joy for the hope that is present in the birth of a child.
These were all God’s work.”
The hope and longing that spring up in our hearts in the midst of winter is a divine gift. It is much older than the Christian faith. And Christianity had been in existence for over 300 years before anyone bothered to work out a date for Jesus’ birth and a liturgy to celebrate it.
In the 4th century the Church was doing some tough theology, trying to work out how we can truly say that Jesus is both God and man. And as they hammered out the creed we now repeat, Christians wanted to celebrate the beginnings of Jesus’ human story, as the son of Mary born at a particular time and place. But at the same time they knew this birth was the dawning of God’s light in a dark and suffering world. It was not a sentimental story about happy families and sharing good times. It was a breaking into history of an extraordinary reality, which took a recognisable human shape.
Many of us were here in church last Sunday evening for the carol service. Every year a high point is Peter Cooper’s thrilling reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. Eliot captures with uncanny precision the paradox of Christmas, as one of the wise men asks:
Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
What the Christians of the 4th century began to tell the people they evangelised, the people who were clutching their gods with desperate hope, was that in Christ the true light has actually, finally, come into the world. The incarnation mysteriously unites birth and death in the purposes of God. It makes sense of the ancient longing for light in the darkness, for good news in the midst of suffering.
As they spread the gospel throughout the northern latitudes of the Roman empire, the missionaries invited their new converts to bring the gifts of their own cultures to the Christ child. The Magi with their gold, frankincense and myrrh were the first pagans to bring the best of what they had to newborn Son of God. They were followed down the centuries by countless others. Robert Hunt, the theologian I quoted earlier, gives examples: “A sleigh riding Turkish saint, blazing fires, lights in trees, drumming and music, poinsettias and roses, queens with crowns of candles: all of these are offerings made at the cradle of the Christ Child. And each is the best gift, the richest and most meaningful, that any culture could offer.”
We should celebrate this human desire to bring a tribute. There is something about Christmas that calls forth a longing to give. We shower our children and our friends with presents. We donate more generously to charities at this time of year. A famous carol that was commissioned for the English Hymnal and that was sung in this church for the very first time in December 1905 sets to music the simple words of Christina Rossetti:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him,
Give my heart.
When people are asked in surveys what matters to them about Christmas, it’s time with family, giving and receiving gifts, and enjoying holiday meals that come out as the most popular answers. Only a minority mention the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. And yet every year, churches and cathedrals fill up with people singing carols by candlelight and taking a little time in this busiest of seasons to be quiet and watchful by the manger.
Hope is what the Christian faith adds to the age-old midwinter festival of light in darkness, feasting with friends, and giving of gifts. The hope that at last, the light really has dawned, that God is on the move, that the darkness will not have the last word. Hope that in our world, in all its madness and wrongdoing, love and peace may yet prevail. Hope that kindness is never wasted, that loving relationships are what have eternal value. Hope that it’s all true.
And so in church we focus on a newborn baby, that universal sign of a new beginning, the infinite promise that every new life brings. And in the baby whose birth we celebrate, we see the face of God, who made us, loves us, and is faithful to us. Listen carefully. In the darkest hour of midnight, on the one of the longest nights of the year, we can hear the angels sing.