What I said at Midnight Mass

Well, the Christmas services are now all over. Here’s the sermon I preached at Midnight Mass this year. As always at the Midnight Mass, the gospel reading was the prologue from Saint John’s Gospel.

Part of the crib at St Johns Caterham

Scene from the crib at S. John's, Caterham Valley

John 1.1-14

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

God had been very busy creating things. And God said: Wow! I’m worn out. I’ve just created a 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness on Earth. The angel said: What are you going to do now? And God said: I think I’ll call it a day!

One of our most basic fears is fear of the dark. Today, with electric lighting inside and out – unless you live in Woldingham, of course, where the residents don’t want street lights – we rarely have to face the dark unless it is our own choice. At the time of Jesus, as night fell, the only protection against the dark was a candle or an oil lamp. And to step outside your front door was to step into the dark and the unknown, where even what little light you had could only light up a few steps in front of you. Beyond that, and the darkness swallowed up the light.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That fear of the dark is something that we still experience, most of us, as children. And that childhood fear is so common that the Center For Effective Parenting, based in Little Rock Arkansas, has a very helpful page on its website dedicated to helping children overcome their fear of the dark. It is full of useful information such as: One of the most common forms of fear of the dark is fear of sleeping in a dark room … This type of fear usually occurs at night.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The message of Christmas addresses our worst fears, shines light upon them, and provides them with an answer. When we grow up fear of the darkness is replaced by fear of so many things. We look round our world, at chaos and war, at places where people are starving and oppressed, and we think of them as places dominated by the darkness of hopelessness and death. And we face the fears ever present on our own doorsteps – fears brought on by money worries, relationship problems, health issues … the list could go on.

St John’s Gospel has the audacity to address our fears head-on. Matthew and Luke also tell us about the birth of Jesus, and we read their familiar stories each Christmas. They tell us stories of a birth: a faithful Jew, a young girl, journeys, stars and angels, shepherds and magi, a despotic king and a miraculous deliverance. Their stories show that God’s plan will unfold whatever the problems put in its way. Miraculously, the Emmanuel child is born, and God is with us. All the signs are there, the prophecies have been fulfilled, and a new chapter in the story of our salvation begins to unfold. The Fourth Gospel spells out for us the deeper implications of this birth. This is no ordinary child. If we have read Matthew and Luke’s stories we know that. But here we learn that this is no less than the Word and Wisdom of God, the founding principle of the universe, there at life’s beginning and eternal, seen among us as one of us, human. God has come to live with his people, and we have seen his glory.

And God’s presence brings with it fundamental changes. The child that has been born is life and light, and the world will never be the same. Life can no longer be conquered by death, as this child will eventually demonstrate in the most dramatic way possible. Light can no longer be dispelled by darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. This is not an abstract statement of theology, because St John’s Gospel tells us that God’s promise “lived among us”. We don’t need to gaze in hope at the faraway stars, because God’s light lived in our world, lived our human life, and continues to illuminate every part of it.

It is very easy to be pessimistic about our world. We are so often afraid that the darkness will win. John’s Gospel invites us, as followers of Jesus, to take a different view. It asks us to fix our eyes on the light, and to know that it shines on, and that no darkness can put it out. Christmas is a time for fun, for turkey, cake and chocolates, for giving and receiving, a time for parties and for celebration, and for struggling with the choice of whether to watch Downton Abbey or find out who dies in the fire on Eastenders. Not much joy in albert Square this Christmas, but then there never is!

But Christmas is also a very serious celebration. It dares to assert, against the evidence, that all those centuries ago the world was changed for good when Jesus was born. It tells us to look at the moon and the stars and see their maker, who is one with the baby in the manger, and know that a greater light still shines in the world: a light that will shine till the end of time.