Sermon for HIGH MASS for Christmas Day Thursday 25 December 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Christmas morning is, of course, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. As you know, in Italy and France they find it incomprehensible that we gather in considerable numbers in churches on Christmas Day and that the main family event is lunch. This is sometimes said to reflect our deeply embedded Protestant suspicion of having a good time. In continental Europe, of course, Christmas is well and truly over by now, apart from the massive bloating and deadly hangover. Everyone gathers for their Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass is the climax of the festival for those who choose to attend.
There’s certainly something more sober and less exciting about gathering at 11.00am with all the eating and drinking still to come! One can imagine our Puritan ancestors’ delight in abolishing the unique, and sometimes less than sober, celebrations which the Midnight Mass encourages. But we mustn’t give up on the good time, because this is supposed to be a party. It isn’t the big Easter party – which really ought to be huge and champagne-fuelled: the exit of cork from champagne bottle should be a compulsory element of all Easter liturgy. Today’s is the sort of party that should follow any birth or baptism – one in which we look to the future with hope and joy and seek imaginatively to enter into the potential of what has happened.
Of course that’s all said from an insider’s religious point of view. I need to remind myself often that many of the things which bring me gladly to Mass every day are not always to the fore in the consciousness of everyone who comes to church. It’s inevitable that when I come to church I bring a lot of assumptions about just that, church. Others come with more or less interest in those things. And all are most welcome. So how to find a point of connection with a less churchy Christmas?
The place to start is that word, ‘welcome’. If we’re going to celebrate something, if there’s a party going on, we need to be invited and know that we are eagerly gathered in. At the heart of the incarnation, of Jesus being born, is an assertion that we are welcome with God. ‘In my father’s house are many dwelling places and I go before you to prepare a place for you’: we hear these words of Jesus at many funerals. But they are also part of the trajectory of relationship which starts here.
How do we know we’re welcome with God? Because he made an effort to invite us. How did he do that? He joined us in our humanity so that he could speak words we understand in a voice which is authentic to us. That’s the point of John’s unexpected and beautiful poetic opening to the Gospel: ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ We don’t usually attend parties of aliens (though saying that I immediately reflect that some church services leave me feeling that I’ve arrived somewhere a little strange). We usually attend gatherings where we share common ground. To demonstrate that commonality, having sent messages via various imperfect human messengers, the prophets, God sent his own son, the most authentic message and invitation he could send. If we want people to come to a party we don’t generally send a stranger with the invitation, unless we are very grand and commanding people.
That’s the second thing to say. Rather than being grand and commanding, God is precisely, ‘God with us’. People, including many Christians, have characterized God as a scary monarch or dictator. But as important as that sense of welcome, is that God comes not just to but among us, and without claiming status: ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ This is not the God-emperor from Rome deigning to notice his subjects from afar, providing a sort of peace, the pax Romana, which is peace as the world gives, but not the peace of God which passes all understanding. God comes to us in the poorest, most marginal, least powerful person imaginable: a child born in dubious circumstances to a young Jewish girl in a remote and unprepossessing corner of the Roman Empire. There is no human experience too degraded, too marginal or too despised by the respectable and powerful of the world for God to feel at home there. His invitation, his personal invitation – this is the point of Christmas – reaches beyond any of the boundaries familiar to us. When I lived in Berkhamsted I sometimes heard people say how fortunate they were not to live in Hemel Hempstead. God does not honour that sentiment – he does live in Hemel Hempstead. As an Australian I must affirm that he even lives in New Zealand. He joined in our lives – he joined in the lives of people whose lives we have never met or understood personally – in order that it could never be said that God’s invitation wasn’t open to everyone.
So the third, and last, thing to say this morning is this. You’ve come here this morning in the middle of winter without benefit of public transport; that means you’ve responded to an invitation, at some level. God’s question to all of us this morning is will you stay for the party, and will you enjoy it?
This party is not like Christmas drinks. This is a party without a fixed guest list and one which is not time-limited; it is eternal in its reach and utterly inclusive in its invitation. The only sense in which all are not included is that not all respond to the invitation. ‘He came to his own, but his own did not receive him’. It’s a feast of life and freedom, yet many don’t come. Sometimes, of course, we, the church, are to blame. We don’t always offer the invitation very well; life and freedom aren’t always obviously enough on offer. But, as in the creation of any relationship, people also have to say yes. Our part is to keep asking, or if asked to respond generously.
Since you’ve bothered to turn up this morning, I assume you know you’re welcome. I hope you are also enjoying yourself, and will help someone else to respond to this invitation in the year ahead.