Sermon given at the First Eucharist of Christmas 2014
24 December 2014 at 23:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
'The darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day.'
I wonder how many of us have known real darkness, that velvety blackness of the night in which you can see virtually nothing. In a satellite image of the world at night, light blazes out from Europe and parts of North America; other parts of the world know deep darkness. Such nocturnal darkness is only experienced in 10% of the British Isles. So, for many of us, real, total darkness is an alien experience. But we can probably understand its power to disturb, even to terrify. It is no wonder that darkness has long been understood to mean more than physical darkness but to stand for misery and gloom, even despair.
On 4th August this year, we held a solemn vigil of commemoration, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. At 11 pm, Midnight in Berlin, the British Government's ultimatum had run out and Britain had declared war on Germany. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, 'The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.'
At the beginning of our vigil service, candles were held by all the two thousand people gathered here. Gradually, the candles were extinguished until only one lamp remained alight, by the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at the West End of the Nave. When at 11 pm that lamp was extinguished, only the television lights prevented complete darkness in the Abbey. But that was not the end. In the Lady Chapel, at the East End of the Abbey, seen only on television screens, a new light shone. This was the light of the Paschal candle, representing the new life of the risen Jesus Christ. And one of the Abbey clergy read words from the Prologue to St John's Gospel, 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.' The First World War was a dark time for Europe and the world. Next year we shall mark here the centenary of some terrible acts of death and destruction, involving the loss of life on an unimaginable scale.
And we know that the darkness of that period has been followed throughout the last century by terrible acts of darkness, of death and destruction. Now, in the Near and Middle East, in the Holy Land, in Iraq and Syria, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, within the last year, there have been appalling acts of dispossession and terrorism. Much more could be said. We welcome on this holy night in the Abbey His Grace Bishop Angaelos the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in this country, whose people in Egypt, like so many other Christians, especially in the ancient lands from which our holy faith sprung, have been at serious risk.
Whilst physical darkness can be frightening but also wonderful and healing, moral darkness is immensely destructive: the darkness of a world at war, or torn apart by civil war or strife, or divided by hatred and suspicion, or governed by people only concerned with their own position or power or wealth. Our world suffers too from a spiritual darkness, the darkness of people turned in on themselves, people who fail to see joy in other people, people who ignore or miss the intrinsic and natural beauty of the order of nature, people who suppress the beauty of their own personalities that would be revealed if only they could turn outwards towards others, if only they could find in God the foundation and source of goodness, truth and beauty, the wellspring of joy, hope and love.
Into this spiritual and moral darkness, and on this dark night, comes tonight a new light shining, a light that cannot be overcome, a light that will never be extinguished, a light that can provide us all with a sense of direction and purpose and with a clear vision, the light of Christ. And this light of the new-born baby Jesus Christ is accompanied tonight by the bright lights of the angels and archangels in the night sky singing Glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth. May our celebration of this holy birth allow the light of Christ to shine in us. Then those around us and our world will be suffused with the light of God, the light of beauty, truth and goodness, born into the world, born into flesh at Bethlehem, born our brother, born our Saviour, Jesus.
In St John's vision, 'There will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.'