Sermon for MIDNIGHT MASS & BLESSING OF THE CRIB Monday 24 December 2012
‘And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour who is the Christ the Lord.”’
A couple of Sundays ago, I made the announcement of a birth to the congregation here. Later, I visited the young lady and her mother in the Neo-Natal unit of the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. Cradled in the crook of my arm was a tiny baby, weighing less than 4 four pounds. Her swaddling bands were a baby-grow several sizes too big for her tiny frame, and a woolly hat to keep her warm. Her journey to life had been a precarious one for her and an anxious one for her parents.
Holding this tiny scrap of humanity, I was reminded again of the vulnerability of children. But we have had a much more brutal reminder of that in the massacre by a deranged young man with an assault rifle, of the children of Newtown, Connecticut in that place where they should have been able to feel safe: their school.
At the same time, In Syria, that land once governed by Quirinius on behalf of his imperial master, babies are being born in refugee camps and children are sleeping in tents or blown to pieces by bombs, as the powerful cling brutally to power.
Luke tells us about Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, not just to give the birth of Jesus a date, a location in time, but to make a statement about Jesus as Saviour, Christ the Lord, the Son of God.
There were two claimants to such titles. One was Caesar Augustus, the other was Jesus. To all outward appearance, this was no contest. Stalin once cynically asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” If this question had been asked in the time of Jesus and Caesar Augustus, it would have been immediately obvious that it was Caesar who had the divisions. He it was who ruled over Rome’s far-flung empire and her legions marched at his command.
Jesus, on the other hand, was even at the height of his fame, largely unknown during his earthly life, certainly beyond the bounds of Palestine. He had no armies to obey his voice. There was only one instance him resorting to violence and no one is recorded as dying when he cleansed the Temple. He preached un-Roman virtues like non-violence and forgiveness of enemies.
The Roman emperors have not been entirely forgotten: scholars still study them and we watch television programmes about them; but none of us would dream of worshipping even the better ones; let alone the likes of Caligula and Nero.
But with Jesus it is a different matter. For all his apparent insignificance; his humble beginnings, his ministry in a province far from the centre of things, his condemnation to the death of a criminal or rebel, he has been and is followed and worshipped by countless millions. Even those who do not believe in his divinity, often express their admiration for him as a person and a teacher.
Those two contenders for divinity, Caesar and Christ, represent two very different kingdoms:
- One is based, in the final analysis, on power and violence, its capacity to compel obedience or to buy compliance with bread and circuses; its founding myth is one of fratricide, the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus; its icons are the Roman eagle and the gladiatorial games.
- The other is founded on love and its capacity to generate love in return; to draw rather than to compel us to follow its ruler, the Prince of Peace. Its founding story is not of blood taken but of blood given. Its icons are the Crib and the Cross. Its people are fed not on bread and circuses, but on the bread of life shared at the table where the small are as welcome as the great.
In the aftermath of last week’s slaying, we have heard the voices of both kingdoms:
- a priest, the pastor of one of the dead children, said that assault rifles belong in war zones not in homes and communities;
- the spokesman for the National Rifle Association said that the answer was not less guns but more: in every school, at every classroom door, in every teacher’s hand.
The gospel tonight ended with angels singing of peace of earth. That peace is more than the absence of conflict. It is certainly more than what was said of the Romans: “They have made a desert and called it peace.” It is a active concern for the well being of all. The epistle to Titus speaks of the community which Christ calls to share in the establishment of that peaceable kingdom; “a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Last week an atheist journalist paid tribute to the followers of Jesus in that institution which the cultured despisers of religion so love to make fun of: the Church of England. In “An Atheist’s Prayer for the Churches that Keep our Soul,” Simon Jenkins wrote in praise of the Church of England: “when government is bleeding civic purpose from every community in the land, the church and its clergy are one of the last human threads binding communities together.”
He speaks of places “from which doctors, teachers, policemen, social workers, professionals of all sorts, have fled. The only ‘leader’ left in residence is the priest,….underpaid, working in appalling surroundings and motivated by a grim but sincere philanthropy. …When a river floods, a child vanishes, or a murder is committed, the only person the media can find to comment is usually a priest…..Local England has reverted to the Middle Ages, with the clergy as its most public face….the ones who tend to know who is in trouble, who is a villain and who is a saint. They mobilise 1.6 million parish volunteers for what amounts to social work, from caring for the elderly to hospital visiting. This output must be worth billions to the state. And all the state does in return is impose VAT on church repairs.”
Well, whatever the state’s response, this is what people who follow Jesus do. This is what it means to share in the life if the incarnation. This is what Christmas means for the whole year.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses