Sermon for Midnight Mass 2017
A couple of weeks ago it seemed there might be a white Christmas this year. But as usual the weather seems to have settled for being mild and cloudy, which isn’t quite the Dickens idea of Christmas but is pretty typical for London.
Rather than a white Christmas, more and more people have been talking this year about a blue Christmas. Some churches hold a service in the days leading up to Christmas, when people can come together and be honest about the fact that it’s not all joy and jingle bells for them in the holiday season. For many people, the past year will have been a time of disappointment and grief.
It may be just the unsettled political situation, with negotiations about Brexit leaving many people feeling anxious and fearful. But for others, the year will have brought personal troubles. This Christmas may be the first holiday season that some of you are observing in the absence of a loved one who has died. It may be that in the past year you or a family member have had health problems, a relationship breakdown, or financial worries. And as always, the Christmas story may be a reminder to you that you have real questions or difficulties about believing in God.
A few hours ago hundreds of children and parents packed this church for our Christingle service, and I think I can safely say that joy and excitement were unbounded. For many of us, it is only through the eyes of children that we can reliably recapture the wonder of Christmas. Remember the time when you were wide-eyed in anticipation of Father Christmas coming down the chimney? Remember when having a major role in the school or Sunday school nativity play was a highlight of your year? Remember the almost unbearable anticipation of opening piles of gifts under the Christmas tree?
But how do we celebrate it with maturity and integrity, in the midst of grownup life with all its ups and downs? I want to suggest a theme for reflection that takes us beyond the idea that it is really a holiday for the children, much as children certainly enjoy it.
Christmas is the celebration of God doing something entirely new and unexpected. God appears on earth as a member of the human race. The one by whose word all things throughout the universe came into being was born as a baby in an occupied land on a tiny planet at a particular time in history.
The sheer astonishing oddness of this idea is sometimes overlooked because we are so used to the visuals of nativity scenes. But John’s gospel gives us goosebumps in describing the sheer newness of what God has done. Creation itself is the appearance of something out of nothing. And the words of Genesis 1 – in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – are consciously echoed by tonight’s gospel reading.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
St John’s gospel is telling us that what happened at the birth of Jesus was as entirely new and unprecedented as the very act of the creation of the universe. It was a complete discontinuity. Human beings had struggled along for centuries. The people of Israel had been given a divine Law to help them live in accordance with the commands of God. They did their best, though being human they failed regularly as we all do in trying to live moral lives. They were given a land to live in and the promise of countless descendants. But they knew that wasn’t God’s final act on their behalf. The prophets continued to promise more: a new act that would bring hope and redemption.
And then the impossible thing happened and the glory of God appeared in a human life. That’s why we have stories of angels filling the sky with song. God was with God’s people in an entirely new way.
It’s this new, impossible thing that Christmas is about. The heart of the Christian faith is that God keeps doing new things all the time. In a few months we will celebrate Easter, the good news that resurrection from the dead, new and eternal life, a completely fresh start, is not just for one human being but for all.
When people tell their stories about why they came to faith, they are nearly always testimonies to a new and impossible thing that God did in their lives. They are stories about forgiveness and reconciliation between sworn enemies, stories of healing from years of abuse, stories of escaping from addiction to drugs or alcohol. These stories aren’t just about everything coming right, of course. They are often stories about finding love and endurance in a situation which may continue to look hopeless from the outside.
One of the books that really affected me last year was Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon. He interviewed over 300 families whose children had some kind of identity that put them outside the mainstream – deafness, dwarfism, autism, profound physical disability, Down’s syndrome, mental health issues, prodigious talent, and a whole range of other conditions. Again and again he discovered that ordinary parents learned something extraordinary through their frequently agonizing experiences of loving children with challenges they had never dreamt of. They discovered in the process what it means to be human. There was absolutely nothing sentimental or easy about it, but it was life-changing and in most though not all cases ultimately life-enhancing. Their lives took on a new shape that they could never have imagined, or even dreamt of wanting.
The power of love is always something new. It changes our lives. There was a famous woman called Dorothy Day in early 20th century America. She led a wild and unhappy life when young. But when she gave birth to her daughter, everything changed. She wrote, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creature than I did when they placed my child in my arms…No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”
That puts me in mind of so many Christmas pictures that we see of the Virgin Mary gazing with awe and tenderness at her newborn child. Love electrifies us, as a commentator on Dorothy Day’s live observes. “It de-centres the self. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love.”
Dorothy Day’s life changed completely. She was transformed by the birth of her child, this utterly new thing that was God’s gift to her. She became a Catholic and spent the rest of her life as a radical activist serving the poor.
But each of us has a story of a new thing to tell – or we could have, if we only let it happen. We struggle along, doing our best, trying to endure the ups and downs of life. What if we invite Christ to be born in us, to come and dwell in us? What new thing might that mean?
We may not want to be changed, but we don’t have the option of standing still. Remember Cardinal Newman’s words that “in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
A new thing is happening right now in our diocese. The first woman Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, was announced a week ago. For everyone this is quite startling news. For some it is a shock and even a cause of grief and fear. For many others it is a wondrous, unexpected thing – a possibility that we hadn’t dreamt of. We wait with great excitement to see what it might mean. Whatever happens, it will involve all of us. God’s new things aren’t just something to marvel at from afar. God’s actions and gifts involve us and potentially transform us.
Christmas may be white or dull and cloudy, it may be full of the joy of children or a rather blue and dismal time. What matters is that in coming into this world, God has done something new. Let us open our hearts to the possibility of being changed, of being changed often, even daily, as we receive the gift of Christ at Christmas.