Sermon for Christmas Day High Mass Tuesday 25 December 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We heard Isaiah, writing in the 8th century BC, say in our first reading:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.
Peace is as topical a gift to pray for this Christmas as any other; despite the song of the angels we can’t avoid the conflict in Syria, the danger posed by a potentially resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, instability in government at home and abroad. But still we come here, at the end of another year, to welcome the birth of the Prince of Peace. It’s a strange business. So what is it, this Christmas proclamation? As Thomas Becket asks, in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral,
‘Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?’
The Christian answer is found in our two readings this morning. It’s about the nearness of God, how the event we’re celebrating is not God dropping in to the world for a while and then moving on, but staying and joining in. We heard from Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, …
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…
That is Jesus, whom today we worship as a little child, the focus of the opening verses of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…
At one of our carol services this month I was approached by a Chinese woman who had been a postgraduate student in comparative religion at SOAS, not far from here. She’d already been to three Carol services and wanted to know why we always read those words from John, and what did it mean to say ‘the Word became flesh’.
That was quite a question over mulled wine and minced pies, but I did my, doubtless inadequate, best, because it is also a very good question: every Christian heresy, every skewing of the Gospel into fundamentalism or liberalism, results from failing to address what this means, ‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us’, the incarnation.
There’s a technical answer, of course, about how Christian theology adopted the terms of Hellenistic philosophy to explain the Gospel to the contemporary Greek-speaking world. Very roughly, the Greeks called the organising principle of creation, the mind behind it, the ΛÏŒγος. This is usually translated literally, in English as in Latin, as ‘The Word’, capital ‘W’. This translation lends itself to poetry rather than philosophy. So St Augustine, who didn’t know Greek, memorably describes the relationship of John the Baptist to Jesus like this:
When John was announcing our Lord’s coming he was asked: ‘who are you?’ He replied: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ John was a ‘voice’, but in the beginning the Lord was the Word. John was a voice for a time: but Christ, who in the beginning was the Word, is the Word in eternity.’
Augustine elsewhere meditates on silence and sound, how a word forms in the mind but must be spoken to communicate; how, once it is spoken, the communicated word remains in the mind when the voice is gone. This poetic reflection is conditioned for him, as for us, by the translation: ‘Verbum‘, Word.
This satisfied my questioner, but didn’t really satisfy me. It feels too theoretical an answer: we aren’t here this morning to celebrate a bloodless theory. The Gospel seeks to communicate simple reality, not a complex system of belief: think of Jesus’ parables, concrete stories illustrating what God’s kingdom ‘is like’.
And the Christian truth at the heart of this image of the ΛÏŒγος is very simple too. This is the moment, we believe, when God crept in beside us, and stayed. That is how close we are brought to God at Christmas. And the closeness is a two-way street. Not only does God get inside our skin at Christmas, but he does it in such a way that our deep selves are made so close to God that you can’t see the join.
The Word being made flesh describes God being born in reduced human circumstances, yet with the ‘exact imprint of his being’ as Hebrews puts it. That image is of a three dimensional coin-portrait, miraculously real to the ancient world, like a hologram to us, but, unlike a hologram, something concrete and tangible. The little child we hear about in Luke and Matthew has in him not just the shared stuff of our human life, but also God who created that life. Once that has happened God is with us and loneliness need be no more. This feast is about God’s commitment to our messy lives, and his invitation to relationship, offered in soldarity; we do not celebrate a command accompanied by a rule book. You may choose whether or not to accept that, to accept the invitation.
All that follows, of life and light and glory, may be ours as well if we only accept the significance of our not being alone, not being at a critical distance from what really matters. Jesus’ birth, the ‘Word made flesh’, reminds us that we have in us, in our embodied selves, the capacity for eternal life, something that is as true of the drug addict and the homeless schizophrenic as of our more comfortable selves. True life does not depend upon our environment or circumstances, but on proximity to God, which is, precisely, gifted, we proclaim today.
In that is ‘the peace of God, which passes all understanding’. As Thomas Becket goes on to say in that other Christmas sermon, almost immediately, tomorrow, we celebrate the death of the first martyr, S. Stephen, who knew peace in his violent death. This peace of God is not the absence of violence, but the capacity not to be overcome by it, for it cannot remove our gifted relationship with God: ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’.
That is what we celebrate today, the substance, not the accidents, of our lives, however joyous or gloomy the details may be for us at this minute, at the end of 2018, however well or badly we may be doing by other people’s benchmarks; that is what can lead us all, pray God, who is with us, to Easter glory.