Sermon for Christmas Day High Mass Sunday 25 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We have seen his glory
I’m sure you all have an especially memorable Christmas that simmers in your subconscious and occasionally leaps out to make you grateful for this one. Mine was my first Christmas as parish priest in my home city and parish, in Sydney.
The Rectory had been allowed to decay for 70 years and was being substantially reordered within. The parish having failed to begin this work before my arrival, I was living in one attic room, under the slate roof, where the temperature hovered around 38 degrees; below me floors were being sanded (preparation for which involves punching every nail further into each floorboard); windows were being replaced, wiring renewed, plumbing made to work. I was about four hundred metres from Platform 1 of Central Railway Station and a lot closer to two city streets which never sleep. I had to run down three flights of stairs to answer the doorbell, which rang frequently with requests for money. The parish computer had been stolen, the parish secretary had decided she’d take her chance and resign, the phone rang constantly. Christmas loomed.
As I sat down to write my sermon on the 23rd of December, I had a call from the manager of the parish Arts Centre. On the other side of this church from the Rectory is a larger building, originally a parish school which had also gently decayed throughout the 20th century. Then, in 1993, the city’s most accomplished ecclesiastical arsonist had set fire to it. This happens in Sydney from time to time. The arsonist’s work was especially welcome in this case: the churchwardens had doubled the insurance a few months earlier and the state government had then been persuaded to add a significant amount to the insurance money to turn the fine old building into an Arts Centre, used by musicians, a dance company, a drama school and various other organizations in addition to the parish. The Sydney Youth Orchestra had taken a head-lease on the whole building and the centre’s day to day affairs were being managed by a talented pianist who needed a real income.
It was he, let’s call him Dan, who telephoned me, asking to see me urgently. Since his office, unlike my accommodation, was air-conditioned, I went to see him and listened to his interesting news. He announced that he’d been systematically embezzling small amounts of money from the Arts Centre for the past three years, mostly for drugs and taxi-fares (I well recall the interesting combination of his needs); events had now overtaken him to the point where he’d be unable to conceal the fraud any longer because the Youth Orchestra was going bankrupt and everything was about to be audited.
Dan now envisaged a scene in which he would be led hand-cuffed from the building by armed police (an artist, you understand). To his obvious disappointment, I insisted that Christmas comes for everyone and we did not prosecute him; instead, more usefully, he worked off the debt over six months before leaving us. But of course auditors with sharp suits and expensive brief-cases did give him some of the hard time and humiliation that he craved. By the end of the 23rd of December, as I retired to my attic sauna, I’d sorted out most of what could be done about the matter; but still I had no sermon.
Somewhere, in the gaps on Christmas Eve, I managed to scribble a text, about which I can now remember nothing. My principal memory of that High Mass is of walking along the communion rail with someone beside me wiping my face to stop me dripping on people as I gave them communion. But I do also remember the sense that this was a real Christmas: chaotic and hard to understand, but God was with us. Christmas didn’t originally, and doesn’t now, happen in a beautiful cocoon: it is for everyone, whatever situation they’ve got themselves into; everyone is invited, God is the open-hearted host.
This Christmas there are a lot of people with worse troubles than those I’ve just described, some caused by much more spectacular irresponsibility, or downright evil, than poor old Dan perpetrated. To a Christian in Aleppo, or someone maimed or bereaved in the attack on the Berlin Christmas market, my problems wouldn’t amount to Humphrey Bogart’s ‘hill of beans’. But, again, it was into this real world, in which we do and suffer such things, that Christ was born.
We’ve just heard again those strange words –
‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory‘.
The first phrase – ‘the Word became flesh’ – is an attempt to explain what we can’t fully understand. John is saying just this: that the birth of the baby described by Luke and Matthew was a miraculous intersection of the creative power of God with our lives. It was the intersection and coexistence of ‘the Word’, John’s name for the rational principle of the universe, the intersection of that huge creative force with a human baby, the mixing and folding and blending of something infinite, and without beginning, into the beginning of a poor and precarious human life. One which would be subject to others’ inconsistencies and evil behavior, and also responsive to their needs and troubles.
John proclaims in a poetic and philosophical phrase that we are not alone; that the special quality of God, the ‘glory‘, is available even now to our human senses as a result of the first Christmas. It was seen and touched then in a squalling baby; it is seen and touched here this morning in the simplest staples of existence, bread and wine.
Whatever joy or sorrow, unfinished business, unresolved problems, elation or exhaustion, bonhomie or bad temper you bring with you today, know that here you can also see the glory, and will carry it with you when you go. It is present in chaos and in peace: all things will never be controlled or resolved by us, but if we respond in love to God loving us there will be true peace and nothing to fear.
I’ve lost touch with Dan, but I remain grateful to him for reminding me that Christmas comes in a real world; Christ’s coming cannot be side-lined by human folly: it may be then, in our human messes as well as our good times, that his love, his glory, is seen most powerfully, if our eyes are open and our hearts large.