Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sermon Christmas Midnight Mass 2016

In the Church at the Shepherds' Field, Bethlehem. Photo Matthew Duckett

Isaiah 9.2–7
Titus 2.11–14
Luke 2.1–14

Christmas is a time for doing odd things. If you doubt that, look around you. Here we all are, sitting in church in the middle of the night, well past our bedtimes, celebrating Mass. And unless you all surprise me there are likely to be more people here tonight than there will be tomorrow morning at the much more convenient time of 9.30. Why are we doing this?
We’ve brought a tree inside and festooned it with baubles and lights. Why? We’ve been shopping, planning presents and festive meals, gifts are waiting at home, relatives visiting, spare bedrooms made up. It’s not exactly the weather for holidays and leisure pursuits but many of us will be taking time off work, perhaps a week, this year, if we’re lucky. But in spite of that public transport has completely stopped – in London, one of the busiest cities on earth, for a full 24 hours.
Christmas interrupts the normal. It intrudes itself into the routine flow of daily life, and even in this very secular age most people feel that they have to do things differently, for a few days at least.
A birth always does this. A birth is always an interruption of the normal, an intrusion of the strange and unfamiliar as a completely new person arrives and changes the dynamic of the family and the home. Bringing new hopes, new demands, new risks.
And Christmas is a birth, of course, a very particular birth, and no ordinary one. “A child has been born to us”, says the Prophet Isaiah. Some seven centuries before Christ that prophet of the people of Judah looked forward to a birth that would change everything, and audaciously addressed this child as “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.
This child comes as an interruption of the normal, not only for his family, but for the world. But in a strange way, because at the time of his birth it doesn’t seem as though it is this child who is doing the interrupting. The Roman Empire thinks it is doing that – a decree has gone out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This was a land registration, in fact, rather than a census. Anyone who had a claim to ownership of some land had to go and register it in person. This in an age when there were no title deeds, and land passed down through the generations of large families. Ownership became very complex. Which is why Joseph, and loads of other people who traced their descent from King David, had to go to Bethlehem, David’s town, to stake their claim to their ancestral land.
This is why there was no place for Joseph and Mary to stay – the little town was full. Normal life has been completely disrupted for thousands of people by this bureaucratic decree from far off Rome.
So in an overcrowded town, with no room at the inn, a child is born, and laid in a manger. On the surface this seems to be yet another disruption for this small family, an inconvenience for them, but they are marginal figures, who could easily be lost in the crowd.
Except, Luke tells us this story in his Gospel, and as he often does he turns everything around and pulls our perspective inside out.
Outside the crowded town are shepherds. Itinerant workers, even more marginal than the family at the manger, they at least would not have been disrupted by the land registration, as they had no land to claim. They slept rough with their flocks, on other people’s land, and would not have been able to keep the ritual purity laws which required, amongst other things, regular baths. They would not have been welcome in polite society. The shepherds were necessary workers, but kept at arm’s length – outside the town.
But it is to these that the message of the birth of Jesus is announced by messengers from heaven. Nothing like this has been known since angels appeared to the great founders and heroes of Israel’s past, centuries before.
But the angel addresses them personally. I am bringing you good news… to you is born this day a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.
The most marginal figures are the first to receive the good news. Good news for them, before it is good news for everyone else. A Saviour is born. None other than the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, foreseen by Isaiah long before, is now come at last.
Salvation has come, into a world of darkness and violence and sin. Humanity has been estranged from the distant God for so long. Now God has bridged the gap himself, born as one of us, born to set us free.
Salvation interrupts the darkness of sin and death as sunrise interrupts the night. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
Christmas is a birth, the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the Saviour born for all people. This child interrupts the normal, and changes everything.
But it is also an invitation to another birth, the birth of Jesus in our hearts, and our rebirth in him. As St John says, in the Gospel reading that will close our Mass tonight, to all who believe in him he gives power to become children of God. This salvation is for us, as much as it was for the shepherds.
It is good news for you, and for me. Believe in Jesus as Saviour, and he will be born in us, and we in him. In him, we are adopted by faith and baptism as children of God, and share in his divine nature. Our sins are washed away through faith in him, and we are born “from above”, born to the new life of God, the life of the Spirit, eternal life.
This birth, too, interrupts the normal, and changes everything. St Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The long dark night of sin is ended, death is conquered; we are named by the Father as his beloved children; love, not fear, becomes the governing principle of our lives; how we live and how we die changes from that moment on.

That is good news, of great joy. For you, for me, for everyone on earth. This night, and every night. This coming year, whatever it may bring, and all our lives. A Saviour is born to us, and he is the Messiah, the Lord.

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