Sermon by Kenneth Padley for Midnight Mass 2019
Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14
As the clock ticks towards midnight, may I take this opportunity to thank you for your many seasonal greetings and kindnesses, and to wish you, your families and friends a very happy and holy Christmas.
So, what sort of Christmas have you come here tonight to celebrate? When we start to reflect on the nature of this festival, we readily slip into one of two caricatures.
On the one hand, there is secular Christmas, a jolly fellow who bounces up to greet us, bedecked in a gaudy jumper and waving a cracker. Here is a Christmas of consumption and excess – the office party, expensive presents, supermarket playlists, too much turkey, and endless ho-ho-hoing.
On the other hand, we might think of Christmas as a sacred festival, a conclave of carols and candles in which the faithful trudge through snow to a hushed and holy church – how silently, how silently this wondrous gift is given.
The temptation to play off these alternative visions of Christmas against one another is particularly alluring for Christians. We can get sucked into earnest conversations about the ‘real meaning’ of Christmas, and we readily complain that Christmas is ‘not what it used to be’ – in which we refer to a hazy memory of what we thought Christmas was like when we were young. Such games of compare and contrast are liable to blame secular Christmas for a parasitic assault on a once special season.
In a previous job I was Chaplain to Bangor University, and each December I organised a carol service in the Cathedral. I liked to involve as many students and staff as possible, inviting representatives from across the life of the university to read one of the traditional nine lessons. Most were delighted to be invited but one student turned me down. ‘Thanks for asking’, she said, ‘but I only keep a secular Christmas’. Caught on the spot I couldn’t think of a good reply, but its one of those phrases that has stuck in my mind.
‘I only keep a secular Christmas.’ On reflection, what I should have said was ‘no problem – so do I’. And that’s because the whole point of Jesus’ birth is to tear down the divide between sacred and secular. The very heart of the Christmas message is that the holy breaks into the ordinary, God crashing the party of Winterval in the form of a tiny child.
Think back to what Bethlehem must have been really like two thousand years ago: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, shepherds and star-gazers, coming and going, no room at the inn. Mrs Padley has recently introduced me to a clip which captures something of this busyness by a Youtuber called Mr Weebl. You need to look up the cartoon for the full effect but the words go like this:
Rowdy night, noisy night.
All is rambunctious, all is cacophonous
Round yon virgin mother and child
Bleating and neighing; pigs going wild
Cows are mooing loudly,
Angels are blowing their trumpets…
The first Christmas must have been a bit like that – much more so than kitsch Victorian lullabies which verge on the heretical, ‘away in a manger… no crying he makes’.
One of the favourite things that I do at this time of year is a session with Year 6 at Prae Wood school about sacred and secular Christmas. We start by looking at Christmas cards and deciding whether they are religious or non-religious. And we find that actually most of the images on the cards are somewhere in between. There’s a twee winter scene with a church and carolers in the background. And here’s a nativity image but its stuffed with cute creatures nowhere to be found in the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth. Sacred and secular blend at this time of year like no other.
And that’s precisely the point. I look to land my lesson with Prae Wood on the incarnation, that central concept of Christmas that God becomes flesh in Jesus: the invisible, the ineffable, the almighty, taking a form – the only form – that we can understand, another human who invites relationship, and with whom we can talk face to face.
I suspect that incarnation is a doctrine better understood by Italians than Anglophones. Think of the menu in your favourite pizzeria. After the pastas and salads are listed those steak dishes which are more expensive than everything else such that you never order one. This section of the menu is headed ‘carne’ – ‘meat’. Its same word in ‘carnivore’ ‘carnival’ – and ‘incarnation’. The incarnation is the bizarre and outrageous claim that God becomes meat.
The children at Prae Wood start to squirm at this point – which (of course) is the reaction they’re meant to have. It was certainly the effect which St John intended when he famously wrote ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. John’s Greek readers would have been scandalised by this idea of God becoming flesh. Following Plato, the Greeks regarded the material world as a mere shadow beyond which lay a more significant immaterial reality. They yearned to escape the material and move to the spiritual. So why would God want to travel the other way?! They saw the stuff of earth as spatially and morally distant from divinity; why should God immerse herself in such mess?! To claim that God’s Word – the message and agent of the almighty – became meat was to overthrow the ancient Greek understanding of reality.
The same message is buried in our esoteric first lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer to the Hebrews was a top-flight theologian. However, Hebrews is largely ignored because that conversation contrasting Jesus with angels seems so odd to our twenty-first century ears.
So here we find another vital and oft-ignored point about tonight’s festival: Christmas leads to Holy Week. Jesus is like a dog – not just for Christmas, but for life. The baby grows up. To understand more fully the incarnation we must follow the story to its conclusion, the atonement of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter.
only keep a secular Christmas. And that’s because its the only Christmas there
is. However, my Bangor student, in saying that she only keeps a secular Christmas, was sub-consciously admitting that
her Christmas was incomplete. My friends, as we gather tonight before the crib,
we catch a glimpse of the vital ingredient. Amen.