Sermon for First Sunday of Christmas – High Mass Sunday 29 December 2013
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 63.7-9; Hebrews 2.10-18; Matthew 2.13-23
Trevor works in United Kingdom House in Great Titchfield Street and worships with us sometimes at the 8am mass on weekdays. He was here on Friday morning and afterwards I asked how his Christmas had been. “We had the whole family over,” he replied. “So, you’ve come back to work for a bit of peace then,” I said. He just grinned.
In the Vestry before mass one of the servers asked me why we were reading about what happened after the Wise Men left, when they haven’t even arrived yet.
Our readings today come from an ecumenical revision of the Roman Catholic lectionary devised after the 2nd Vatican Council. It does not stick rigidly to a historical time line. On the Sunday after Christmas we read those gospel passages which speak of the infancy and childhood of Jesus. There aren’t many: the Presentation in the Temple; the finding of Jesus in the Temple with the doctors of the law; and today, the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt.
In the Roman Church, this Sunday is called the feast of the Holy Family. A priest friend of mine, married with two young children, said ruefully to me a few days before Christmas, that only an institution run by celibate men could think of putting a feast of the Holy Family, on the Sunday after Christmas – just when family harmony has often been strained to breaking point by too much conviviality and consumption in a confined space. The Church of England, perhaps because most of its clergy are married, has wisely stuck to the more neutral title of the First Sunday of Christmas, although the post-Communion prayer at today’s mass does take up the theme of the Hoy Family as a model.
If the idea of a feast is to encourage and support family life, we have to admit that the Holy Family is not exactly a conventional model. Today’s gospel passage does anything but convey a picture of conventional suburban domesticity.
The massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt having nothing of the sentimental and saccharine about them. But they do represent the reality into which Christ was born, and in which many people lived then and live now: there are people fleeing such horrors in Syria, in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic.
The Letter to the Hebrews joins with the Gospel in sounding a discordant note in the midst of all our carolling. This Sunday turns our attention not just to the child who is born but the reason for his birth and what will follow in his life. The shadow of the cross falls over the crib.
The child in the manger, the object of adoration, wonder and worship because he comes from God, is for that very reason, also the object of fear and lethal hatred. And he would remain so even after Herod was dead. The child saved from Herod’s soldiers will, as the writers of both gospel and epistle know, die condemned as a criminal.
This child will also suffer because of his humanity. “Emmanuel” is the God who lives with us, shares our life, which means sharing our suffering and death.
But the New Testament sees this not as the prelude to a poignant tragedy but as at the heart of God’s plan for his creation. “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and the ones who are sanctified all have one Father.”
Hebrews sees Christ as the one in whom that faithful loving kindness of God towards his people which Isaiah celebrates is made visible:
“…and he became their Saviour in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
The Epistle to the Hebrews, which is more a sermon than a letter, seems to have been addressed a congregation of Jewish converts to Christianity who, in the face of hostility is tempted to give up faith in Jesus Christ.
The writer faces these challenges head on by insisting that Jesus is fully divine and fully human:
- In his divinity, as we heard in Chapter 1 on Christmas Day, he rises above all previous revelation and overcomes the power of evil and death.
- In Chapter 2, which we heard this morning, his true humanity makes it clear that he really understands and can minister to those undergoing persecution and suffering, to all human beings in their sin and weakness and helps them in times of testing.
If we are to live as God planned and intended, we need to have God come among us and lead us. We need a divine agent, a divine presence, and a divine touch. Anything less will not do: we cannot save ourselves. But equally, we need one who is one of us, one of our own, one who has lived this life of flesh and blood that we ourselves live. We need a human agent, a human presence, a human touch. Anything less is too distant, too remote, too unworldly. This is what we have in Jesus Christ. He is fully divine and fully human. His life and work represent a fitting and appropriate divine strategy to put things right.
To be made perfect here does not mean that Jesus was morally imperfect to begin with, but that he fulfilled the end which God had intended.
In his humanity, Jesus has entered fully into the contours and depths of human existence. He has taken on the demonic and defeated it. He taken the fear out of death, we still have sorrow at the loss of loved ones and at the thought of our own deaths, but the terror has gone for good in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has become our faithful high priest, taking our needs directly into the presence of God. He has in mercy borne our sins in his sacrifice on the cross. Because he has suffered, he is now able to help us in our suffering, both in our personal lives, and in a culture that has lost hope in God. “Because he himself has been tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
What does this have to say to us about our life as the family of God’s children? Jesus the high priest, who has suffered as we have, is one we can turn to with our sorrows and fears. He reaches out to us. He opens his arms on the cross to embrace us.
First of all, it means that our attention, like that of the Holy Family, must always be centred on Jesus; the Christ who speaks to us in the Gospel, who comforts and strengthens us in the Sacraments.
Jesus is the pioneer, the one who paves the way, who leads home the children of God, his brothers and sisters, whose humanity he came to share as never to lay it by. But he came not just to share, to suffer with, to sympathise, but to transform from within; to make it possible for us to share his life and all that it means. What we see in the humanity of Jesus who shared our life, is the life that we are called and empowered by his grace to share in – that profound and imaginative sympathy, that compassion, in prayer and service towards our fellow human beings: even to our enemies and those who wish us harm.
As Pope Frances says in his letter Evangelii Gaudium – the Joy of the Gospel,
“When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realise that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realise.., that he wants to make use of us to draw near to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and sends us to his people.”
And in the Holy Family we see responses to Jesus which show us that he can and will enable us by his Holy Spirit to share his life.
In Joseph, whose righteousness was not just to wish to do the decent thing towards Mary, in a situation which was none of his making; one in which many religious people would have adopted a high moral tone to avoid imperilling their own reputations or souls, but also in being so formed by God’s law, so open to the call and guidance of God, that he was enabled to do something totally new and unexpected.
In Mary, who was also open to the possibility of something radically new and challenging; empowered by the Spirit of God not just to conceive the Son of God but to risk gossip, scandal and perhaps even worse, to bear him in her womb and bring him to birth, to nurture and raise him, to let him go as he went about his Father’s business, and finally to stand at the foot of the cross as he died, because true parents can never really let their children go. Mary, who pondered all these things in her heart, is both the mother of Jesus and our mother too.
Each morning, when I open the church, I go to the statue of Mary and her Son to light the lamp that burns there, but also to do something which has become more and more important to me over the years, to ask her prayers for people who are especially on my heart at the moment. A few days before Christmas, it was a couple in hospital whom I had held in my arms and prayed with after a miscarriage. And throughout the day people will come in and kneel or sit there, and light their candles, and pray and sometimes they will weep – because children can weep with their mother. They will reach out to her because they know instinctively that she understands: the sword which pierces their heart has pierced hers too. And when the protestant-minded chide me for asking Mary’s prayers, I simply say, “Would you not ask your own mother to pray for you?”
And as a church, we do not to leave it all the Holy Family, to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We are God’s children, so we are the Holy Family too. So we are to reach out to all sorts of people in their need and suffering, their anxieties and fears, their hopes and aspirations, their joys as well as their sorrows. And they should be able to sense and experience in us that same compassion.
The doors of our church must stand open and the heart of our church must be open too. And we must be willing to take the risks involved.
In his letter on evangelisation, “Evangelium Gaudii – the Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis has said that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
He prefers the clergy to be shepherds who smell of the sheep more than they smell of incense and the sacristy.
He contrasts this with the temptation “to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
Our holy family, the Church, is where we encounter him in both the compassion of his cross and the power of his resurrection, so that we can find not only help for ourselves but can learn and practice that same compassionate attention and intention towards others. And in that process we find not only others but we discover ourselves as God means us to be, like himself, and so we find joy in the midst of sorrow.