Midnight Mass 2017
Many years ago I remember following avidly a TV production of Robert Graves’ book, “I Claudius”, with the often repeated and ominous lines spoken by Derek Jacobi as he played the part of the Emperor Claudius: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch out.” Not the sort of introduction you may have been expecting to a Christmas sermon, and I can say without much fear of contradiction, that I am probably the only priest to be quoting it today!
Yet this past year has seen our daily news items focusing on a rapidly escalating series of revelations about the appalling standards of behaviour in many of our previously respected institutions, which had lain hidden but festering beneath the surface for years. The impact on those who suffered as a result may be impossible to imagine. But also, the attitude of influential groups in society that felt that such behaviour was either acceptable, or a perk of the job once you had reached a position of power, is unfathomable.
How have we reached this point where we regard others as being there for our own enjoyment, whatever they suffer as the consequences? That my rights and needs are more important than yours on every occasion? How has this ignorance of the standards which have guided us through the past centuries, come about? For make no mistake; there is a terrific amount of ignorance out there.
There is the potential for something positive to come out of all this. Today is a rather strange day in the church’s calendar, because, given that Christmas Day falls on a Monday this year, today is both the fourth Sunday in Advent, and also Christmas Eve. During Advent, and even in the Sundays before Advent this year, our Bible readings have concentrated our minds on the need for us to remain awake to what is happening in the world; to reflect on it, and to not lose sight of the fact that we will all be accountable, ultimately, for our actions.
The readings from the OT help us to empathise with the situation that the Jewish people found themselves in before the coming of Jesus, as they tried to live lives of faithfulness to God, and trust him to look after them. However, they found that when confronted with the challenges of daily life, and even worse, the aggression of other nations, they chose to try and find more immediate means of human help, and forgot about their calling to be God’s people. As a result, they suffered the consequences of that approach, being taken into exile, or being forced to surrender their national sovereignty.
This sense of the flaws and helplessness of our human nature reached its climax in our readings this morning, given that we were still in Advent. Where was help to come from? How do we deal with a world where the powerful abuse their positions, and the powerless are exploited and subjugated?
Today, within the space of 12 hours after this morning’s readings, we have our answer. Not in a thunderbolt which wipes from the face of the earth all those whose behaviours and attitudes appal us, but in a helpless baby, born into a humble family, in an insignificant and subjugated country. How on earth was that going to have any impact on their, on our desperate situation?
As they say, the rest is history. The lifetime of this child Jesus, coincided with that of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, from whom I quoted at the beginning. Jesus lived about half as long as Claudius, but his impact on the world was far greater. His teaching of God his Father as one who loves us despite our failings, and who not only waits for us to turn to him, but comes running to meet us once we do so, is something our weary world needs to hear and embrace again. The apparent inability of the powerless to bring light to the darkness of the world, gets a resounding response in this child whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Sometimes, as I have experienced constantly, we have to reach what seems to be our lowest ebb for us to see again the miraculous intervention of God. It is when we acknowledge that we cannot behave well towards each other without assistance, that our human frailties get in the way of our judgements and attitudes, and that we feel absolutely helpless in the face of the enormity of such atrocities as the violence towards the Rohingya people, that we can be truly human and know our need of God’s help.
Maybe our country, our world, is at such a place, where we are searching for what it is that gives meaning, and what is more, an ethical structure, to our lives. But ethics alone solve nothing. Saint Augustine, one of the great thinkers of Roman antiquity, found something new and encouraging in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel which we have just heard. He realized that, “the great Platonic ideals of truth and beauty and goodness were not only abstract values forming the everlasting basis of reality, but they had also come down to earth to be fully displayed, embodied, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.” [Polkinghorne Living with Hope, p. 71.]
Today I think there is the beginning of a recognition of the need to have a strong rock on which to stand, giving our lives a firm foundation. To continue the building metaphor, we also need reliable scaffolding to support us throughout life, and all of this can be found through the grace of God. In addition, it means that we can encourage our children to grow in that light and assurance. For that is what gives us mental, emotional and spiritual stability. The problems of the world look different when viewed from the standpoint of this knowledge of God’s intervention in history, and its impact on us as he walks with us through life.
It seems such a small thing, the birth of one baby in the history of the world, but as all the “poisons that lurk in the mud” of the powerful elites that were arrayed against him showed, they could not subjugate, misuse, or defeat the power of God’s love. A small thing, that birth; but the greatest miracle the world has known; if only we would recognize it, and embrace the joy of it not only tonight, and tomorrow, but for the rest of our lives…….