The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
I remember being taught at school—but it was a long time ago, so I might have got it wrong—that, although the English language only has the word 'history' to account for what has happened in the past, the German language has two words. The first German word I learnt for history was Geschichte, which I understood to mean a series of events, one thing after another. This happened and then that happened and then we went out to tea. That sort of history. But then there was another word, very like our English word history, that meant the story, not just what was happening but what it meant, what was really going on behind all those events. And that word in German is Historie.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to suppose there is no Historie, no story, no plan, no purpose. Things are just random. Stuff happens. One damn thing after another. We may think of this as the post-modern understanding of history.
It wasn't always like that. The nineteenth century in this country was persuaded of a view of history that saw everything as getting better. And the Victorians did make great advances, e.g. in education and health. A change in the law in 1870 introduced compulsory schooling for every child. And in 1858—the year of the Great Stink—doctors discovered that it was untreated sewage in the river Thames that caused cholera, and engineers solved the problem with a system of underground sewers.
Things can only get better! The nineteenth century came to think that all the old divisive religious rows of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reformation and Puritanism, were a thing of the past, that people were growing up, were no longer benighted, no longer subject to hidden spiritual forces. People were becoming enlightened. The English enlightenment.
Perhaps they turned a blind eye to the effects of industrialisation on the working and living conditions in the great new towns and cities. In any case, a hundred years ago no one could ignore the rise of civil unrest across Europe. The world wars and the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth century put paid to any idea that things could only get better, though the fall of the Berlin wall twenty six years ago offered a moment of hope. In the past fifteen years, world events have led many to despair, have left people bereft and bewildered, convinced that living together in peace and harmony is beyond us. And this has led many people to see religion as the problem not the solution.
Fifty years or so ago, some people began to see not Christianity itself but religion as the problem. They hoped for religion-less Christianity. Perhaps that meant trying to follow Christ but without services or religious structures. The idea faded away almost as soon as it had been attempted, but perhaps the idea went underground and emerged again in the notion that we can be spiritual without being religious, surely wrong.
So, is there hope? In a dark world is Christmas just a comfort blanket, a passing light? Or is there some real hope to be found here today?
We have heard the words of the prophet Isaiah about the messenger bringing good news, announcing peace, announcing salvation, saying, 'Your God reigns.' Do these words sound hollow? Can we find something to take away from our celebrations today that really makes a difference? There is hope. There is always hope. And that's not just pie in the sky when you die, hell on earth but heaven to look forward to. There is hope for now, for here on earth, for our own lives, even for the lives of people suffering and escaping persecution.
The first sign of hope is that there is meaning and purpose in the order of creation. From the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. The universe has logic, reason, purpose. And its purpose is love. We may not see it or understand it. How can we, when we look at all that there is just from our own limited perspective? But we can look for signs and trust them when we see them.
The second sign of hope is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. St John said, 'We have seen his glory.' We may catch glimpses of the glory of God, but we are amongst those of whom Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.' God is with us. Emmanuel. Even in the darkest moments, we can know that God has been there before in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. God knows what it is to suffer.
The third sign of hope is that Jesus came to preach the kingdom of God, the reign of God. We may look for the coming of the kingdom of God in power and great glory, when the Son of Man comes to judge the living and the dead. Jesus certainly taught that we should expect that. But there is another theme to our Lord's teaching. The kingdom of God is within us, enabling us to be signs of the kingdom, signs of God's generous love.
The fourth sign of hope is that Jesus instituted two beautiful sacraments, Baptism and the holy Eucharist, and sent his Holy Spirit to form us into the likeness of Christ. In this Eucharist today, our living Lord Jesus Christ invites us all this very day to share his life, through the bread and wine, which are his pledge to us of the ultimate triumph of good, of hope.
Light in the darkness, hope overcoming despair: the joy of Christmas. A very happy Christmas to you all, every one.