Sermon given at the First Eucharist of Christmas 2011
24 December 2011 at 23:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
On behalf of the clergy of Westminster Abbey, I wish you a truly happy and blessed Christmas. Happy and blessed! This holy night is happy and it is blessed, for tonight everything is changed: heaven and earth, previously so separate, so different – like chalk and cheese, like oil and water – heaven and earth are joined in one.
Tonight the multitude of the heavenly host joins the archangel on earth and bursts into the song of heaven. Praising God, the angels sing their song, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!’ The earth-bound shepherds hear heaven’s song and run with haste to see heaven’s Lord, born a weak infant.
There is a veil of separation that keeps us, the earth-bound, from seeing heaven all around; that veil of separation is to be torn asunder on Good Friday. This most holy night the veil is translucent; the light of heaven shines in the darkness of the earthly night.
We have just heard how the light of heaven shone on the shepherds. Shepherds were isolated, kept away from society, almost outcastes, certainly poor and uneducated. Their lives were tough. St Luke tells us nothing of the shepherds’ thoughts or beliefs before the message of the angels, before their visit to the stable in Bethlehem. We may wonder whether they were sceptical at first. But something made them accept the archangel’s message and do as he told them. They went ‘with haste’ to find Mary and Joseph and the babe. What they came to see changed their lives. They saw and they believed. Afterwards they could not contain their enthusiasm. They told everyone they came across – much to the surprise of all who heard them. And they thanked God for what they had seen. As St Luke says,
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The shepherds’ lives were changed. Did they know that this baby boy was none other than the king of heaven born into human flesh, born a human being, fully God and wholly man? We do not know. The story moves on. Other lives were changed by the birth of Jesus.
Mary’s life was changed. It had been changed ever since the visit of the archangel Gabriel. God had a plan: to change the world, to save the world from sin and selfishness, from the inevitability of destruction and death. He would be born into human flesh. He would come and reign as Lord and King. Would Mary help? Was she willing to give her life – to bear in her womb the Son of God, who would be called Jesus, and who would be her Son too?
Perhaps at first she had no idea how her life would be changed. Perhaps indeed she dreamed of thrones and kingdoms, of golden palaces and plenty. That would not be her experience. She gave birth to her Son in a stable, amongst the animals, and laid him in the manger. For us who know the story so well and especially for those of us who live in towns, the word ‘manger’ means only the place where Jesus was laid. We can imagine a warm and cosy cot. But it was the animals’ feeding trough, and was probably less than clean, and certainly not hygienic. The indignity and deprivation the holy family suffered at his birth was only the beginning for Jesus of a perilous and painful life and a foretaste of a shameful and humiliating death. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary and Joseph took him to be presented in the temple, Simeon, an old man there, would prophesy that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul. Mary would suffer alongside her crucified Son. Her life was changed for good.
She was not the only one. The gospel stories are full of lives changed by Jesus: the disciples, who, even though they were slow to understand, left everything to follow him; the blind given their sight; the lepers cleansed; Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who went on to give back everything he had stolen and most of the rest to the poor; the Roman soldier, the centurion, who recognised Jesus’ authority; the one who carried his cross; the criminal who repented; the ruler of Israel, a member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a place of burial. All their lives were changed.
So many lives have been changed since then: just think of the 20th century martyrs, commemorated on the west front of the Abbey, who gave their lives rather than deny their faith, rather than betray Jesus.
And what of us? Do our lives need to change, does our society, our nation, our world? We know they do. There seem now no clear answers to the world’s problems. Even the best developments, the most hopeful signs, seem to falter and drift, to wander and get lost in the deep mire of our short-sightedness, our failure to look beyond ourselves. The impact of Jesus Christ changed the governors, the soldiers, the money men, the condemned criminals of his day. They all changed.
The governments and economists of our day do not lack intelligence, even brilliance. Collectively, though, for the time being, we lack a sense of proportion and purpose; we lack a clear commitment, once so widely understood and accepted, to do what is right and avoid the wrong; we fail the test that our forebears, not so long ago, in more dreadful circumstances, passed with aplomb, the trial of virtue and of character.
Let this holy night, our journey to worship the babe of Bethlehem, our encounter with the worship of heaven in the eternal song of the angels, change us. Let it all change us.
Tonight, in the darkness of this midnight hour, the light of heaven shines on us. The veil of separation, sometimes thick as night, can be so thin that it feels as though, transported, we can almost ourselves hear the song of heaven, breathe the sweet air of heaven, feel the perfect bliss of the eternal peace and joy of heaven. May tonight be such a time for us all!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!