Sermon for Midnight Mass 2016

Midnight Mass 2016

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

Has 2016 been a good year for you? A year you’re sad to see end, or one which you can’t wait to see the back of?

The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ also marks the start of the last week of the year. Newspapers and TV programmes have already begun their ‘review of the year’ and the inevitable end of the year award shows have already taken place.

Whether this has been a good or bad year – and whether or not you’re looking forward to 2017, this period marks one of great transition.

Earlier in the year, I had remarked that, having just come back to the parish after three months of sabbatical, the world seemed a very different place to how it was when I went away. We started the year with a different Prime Minister, a different Chancellor – in fact almost every minister was different. The US election process was winding itself up – even if it wasn’t clear then, who at least the Republican nominee would be. There was an impending referendum on our membership of the EU.

Between then and now a lot has changed, clearly. And so I wonder, as we celebrate midnight mass: are you filled with hope or fear?

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Every year someone says to me: I can’t believe its Christmas already! Where does the time go? I think that’s true – or at least age means the world seems to speed up.

I suspect that for Mary and Joseph the time flew. Sure, there must have been moments when the days dragged: the first weeks of pregnancy after the angel had told Mary she would have a baby. Her visit to her cousin Elizabeth must have been hard work in the summer’s heat. And that journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth for a census. Damn politicians!

And then time must have seemed to move far more quickly, desperately searching for someone to take them in, the panic that there was no room, and the final frantic preparations clearing a safe, warm space amongst the animals in a stable.

And then a baby arrived.

And like the arrival of all babies, for Mary, for Jospeh, for those who visited them, time would have seemed to stand absolutely, perfectly still as though heaven and earth just paused. All the normalities of life, the fripperies and irrelevancies, stopped having any meaning at all. For something far more intense was happening – love. And with that love, life changed irrevocably for everyone.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;

Here in Mary’s arms is the Christ, the longed for Messiah, the King of the Jews, the Saviour. Here in Mary’s arms is the one to set prisoners free, to inaugurate a reign of God’s peace. Here in Mary’s arms is God made man – just as the angel had foretold: wonder counsellor, prince of peace. Here in Mary’s arms is a tiny, helpless, dependent baby.

Perhaps that’s a feeling you and I both know. We are all children after all. We have those who look to us for all the answers, they depend on us. And we look to those we depend on for strength, courage and support.

Perhaps that’s why the time flies as we get older, perhaps why we find the authentic inquisitiveness of childhood and optimistic expectancy of youth gives way to the anguish and fears of adulthood. As we age, as those around us age and become frail; as children grow; as the world moves inexorably onward – whether we want it to or not; as we face both the joys of celebrations and the pains of human existence, we realise the fragility of life as we journey on.

The constant is Jesus. The light of the world is that point in space and time to which we are, by the grace and mercy of God eternally bound (whether we want to be or not). The birth of this child, more than any other, marks out time, connects time, transcends time.

That’s after all what we here, day by day, week by week year by year celebrating in bread and wine placed on an altar become our Bethlehem – our house of bread; and become too our calvary, our place of sacrifice with Jesus.

This is where all hopes and fears collide, now, as then. The parents of Jesus look on with bliss and love even as terrified shepherds hurtle towards them to ask: what on earth is going on, what does this all mean? For here it is safe to ask.

We, contented or confused, secure or insecure, hopeful, fearful: we too hurry to look on: to see the light of the world break forth in inextinguishable joy and radiance.

Even if we are weighed down with fear, uncertain in a changing world, this, this we do on this day for it brings hope. We see it keenly in the face of every child who gazes at the face of Jesus in the manger. It is the look and knowledge of wonder, joy and the dawning awe-filled reality of the inescapable connection we have to Jesus – and through him, to each other. His people. His world.

Good or bad year past or yet to come, that’s the hope we must hold on to however dark the world may feel. That, dear friends is the gift this child is. That is his gift, God’s gift to us. Let us hold on to hope, to love, to joy.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

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