Fr David's Christmas Day Sermon
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. John 1:5
In the seventeenth century, during the Civil war, parliament passed legislation that banned the celebration of frivolous additions to the religious calendar, especially Christmas. The attempts by puritans to squash Christmas celebrations continued under Cromwell’s Protectorate. They didn’t like all the mid-winter festivities that went with it, thinking them excessive and irreverent. They didn’t think the church should have special days, but should instead concentrate on marking Sundays as the chief Holy Days. Thankfully, Christmas was restored with the reestablishment of the monarchy, and as far as I am aware, Parliament never again sought to legislate against its celebration, at least not until this year that is!
The curtailing of Christmas plans, is just one mark of the darkness that has been 2020. It’s not just been a year of grave threat from a global pandemic, but as a consequence, a year of threat to our resources, and particularly our underfunded health service. It has been a threat to our freedoms and our way of life, to our ability to see our loved ones, and to maintain a healthy work/life balance, with some having their work taken away, and others burdened with ever more planning and preparation as circumstances and rules continue to change.
Through stress, anxiety, loneliness, unemployment, illness or bereavement our mental health has been continually under threat. Add to that the unknown yet imminent changes resulting from Brexit, and the ever present but oft ignored climate emergency, and 2020 has been a very dark year indeed. And now, even Christmas, the highlight, for many, of this dark time of year has been necessarily dampened, squashed and reduced.
Despite those restrictions, we are, thankfully, still able to gather, be it physically or remotely, to celebrate in our worship, the birth of Jesus, though in a restricted, measured, and controlled way, nevertheless.
That “the light shines in the darkness” is a message we need to hear now more than ever, and a message we need to be ready to share.
That light may not seem so bright this year, but our readings do much to put that into a bigger perspective: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Or from the letter to the Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds”.
This light shining in the darkness was no sudden and temporary blip, it was there before all time began, it was there, intimately involved in creation. It appeared in a particular way 2000 years ago, and it continues to shine now and always will. “But you are the same,” we read, “and your years will never end.”
In one particular moment The Word became flesh, but the Word was in the beginning, the Word is, and the Word, Jesus, ever shall be.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news” we heard in our first reading. How true that is, but only when the news truly is good. If you’ve known anyone close to you struggle with depression or anxiety, if you’ve experienced it yourself, or experienced significant grief, you’ll know that when someone is in a truly dark place, glib, patronising or cliched responses do very little to help, however well meant.
If someone is in a place of darkness, telling them they shouldn’t be, telling them there are people worse off than them, and or even, sometimes, reminding them of the good things in their lives, can make things much worse rather than better. A false or forced light in the darkness is seldom welcome. The one message that does help, that can break through the pain, is the reminder that, even though it may seem like it, things will not be this bad for ever. The Persian adage “This too shall pass” can be the most helpful thing to hold onto in dark places.
That the incarnation is not just a momentary thing, to be celebrated one day a year, but a lasting, eternal truth, that holds through every day of our experience, no matter how bleak, truly is good news.
That Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, is not just true when life is easy, it is not just true when we can gather our loved ones around us and eat, drink and be merry. It is true when we are desperately alone, when we miss dreadfully those we cannot see, when we are mourning and sad, when we are ill and in pain, when we are simply angry about a hesitant government making difficult decisions so late in the day.
In all of that, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. In all of the mess and pain and worry, it is still true that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
We gather here not to celebrate God making a half-hearted attempt to be present in the fine places and niceties of this life, but to celebrate God taking on the form and life of God’s own creation, and choosing to do so in a dirty, smelly stable.
This celebration is not a distraction to help us forget about the reality outside the church door, or a reason to think that those things don’t matter. It’s not true that the changed plans and cancelled celebrations are insignificant because we can still celebrate Christmas in church. It’s not true that the loneliness and grief, the anger and frustration are wrong, inappropriate or misplaced. The significance of God entering our world and entering our lives, is not that those things cease to matter, it is that even in the midst of those things, it remains true.