Sermon given at the Christmas midnight service: Thursday 24 December 2009
24 December 2009 at 23:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Luke 2: 1-14
Why is it, do you ever find yourself wondering, that so many enterprises and projects seem to come to a dismal end? Wherever we look, beyond the personal, the familial, the local, things seem to be going awry. Many people’s great expectations of a bright new political dawn in the United Kingdom seem to have turned into a particularly gloomy and stormy sunset. The prospect of ever more ingenious financial instruments enabling the British to demonstrate the triumph of the private sector has proved laughable in the face of massive public bail-outs. The thought that British troops could leave Afghanistan a better place without a single bullet being fired has been pummelled by millions of ammunition rounds and more than two hundred British service men and women killed. High hopes for a new international order, for greater coherence in planning for the future of the world, have been dashed by procedural confusion and private manipulation.
What a contrast this all makes with the supreme optimism and imperial confidence of the British in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras a hundred and more years ago. That optimism gave birth to confidence: that we could pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that man had at last come of age; that every human problem had its logical solution. That was still the attitude at the beginning of the First World War. It would be over by Christmas. It would be the war to end all wars. One of the most poignant and powerful moments in the Abbey for me in the year that is almost gone was standing at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month reflecting on those hopes and their destruction. Human pride, the human ambition for power and wealth, human confidence that we can achieve everything that is good in our own strength has surely taken a terrible knock in the last decade and in the last century. We have over-reached ourselves. Relying on our own ingenuity, trusting in our own wits, believing our own propaganda has brought us as a society and a civilisation close to destruction.
This is not surprising and it is not new. Mary’s song, when she knew she was to give birth to Jesus the Saviour of the World, was about how God had brought down the mighty from their seats of power and lifted up the lowly, how he had filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Grown to adulthood, Mary’s son declared that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, and to let the oppressed go free. This may seem an uncomfortable message. We would rather ignore it. When everything is going with a swing it is all too easy to forget. But if we do pass it by, there is a lot we miss as we go one our way. Those whose eyes scan the pavement in the hope of picking up the lost coin cannot see the stars. Those whose ears are attuned only to the discordant notes of the cash register cannot hear the song of the angels.
It was simple shepherds who could pick up the angels’ song that first Christmas. As they watched their flocks by night and guarded their sheep against the predatory wolves, they would have been familiar with the sight of the stars. Their ears being deaf to the blaring sounds of the world, they could hear the song of heaven, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.’ These unworldly shepherds were the first to receive the ‘good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour.’ Apart from Mary the Mother of Jesus and Joseph her husband, they were the first people to see the Christ child: ‘they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.’ They were the first to recognise Jesus for who he was, so they ‘returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’
We who are gathered here tonight join the company of the shepherds and the angels and the countless hosts of men, women and children throughout the world and throughout the past two thousand years who have come to kneel and adore, who have come to worship the Christ child. As we humbly enter the stable and approach the manger, one by one, we sense that we are surrounded by the great company of all God’s faithful people and uplifted by their prayers; we hear the song of the angels in heaven; we are drawn into the very presence of God himself. For the lowly stable has become none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. In Christ, heaven has come to earth and earth is joined with heaven: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ [God’s Grandeur Gerard Manley Hopkins] Through Christ, who is both fully God and truly human, our humanity is shown to be capable of unity with the Godhead. Weak and selfish though left to ourselves and our own devices we undoubtedly are, Jesus Christ, in his birth, life, death and resurrection, shows us that we have the capacity to become and be no less than divine, to be one with God himself.
The message of the stable, the message of Christmas, is clear: there is hope for the world; there is hope for our humanity, when it is united with the power and love of God revealed to us in this Christ child and when it is transformed by the grace of God. Then everything can change. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’ [Isaiah 9: 2] ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ [Revelation 11: 15]
On behalf of the Dean and Chapter I wish you all joy and peace in the Lord. May you and yours have a very happy Christmas.