We had a really full church for Midnight Mass this year. As always, the gospel reading was the wonderful prologue of Saint John’s gospel.
On Christmas Day in 1977 over half the population of the United Kingdom did exactly the same thing at the same time. 28 million 835 thousand of us in this country sat down to watch the same television programme at the same time on Christmas Day. And it wasn’t the Queen’s speech! It was …….any guesses I wonder? It was the Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show and for those here tonight old enough to remember, it was the one where a troupe of male newsreaders bounced around singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. This was the point when the cultural phenomenon of families sitting together to watch television reached its zenith. Never again in this country would there be a viewing figure for one programme of this magnitude.
In the lead up to Christmas this year there have been a lot of complaints in the press that the main four TV channels will be showing more repeats than ever. During the two week festive period from December 20th until January 2nd 63% of programmes on those 4 main channels will have been aired before. But do we actually care? Times have changed so much. These days we have so many ways to access media – we can turn to Sky or Virgin, we can get a DVD off our own shelves or we can download something from Netflix. It means we may not put on the TV at all this Christmas Day – if there is anything we want to watch it is set to record. So we can play charades and get out the monopoly board instead. Or perhaps, later today, we are going to experience the current day cultural phenomenon of everyone in the family sitting around with earphones in watching their favourite film on their laptop, playing their new computer game on their Xbox, or sitting watching live TV in a world of their own on their iPad.
Times have changed so much! We live in an age where the fast pace of change can take our breath away and the range of choice that we have can leave us quite bewildered. We can often long for simplicity and familiarity in this fast paced, complex world.
That is another reason why I don’t think we care much about the fact that TV is full of repeats. We actually like repeats – they are familiar. My daughter said to me the other day “If Ben watches Home Alone 4 again I will scream. It wouldn’t be so bad if wasn’t the worse one of the Home Alone films.” Well Ben is eleven, but it’s not just children who like repeats. Adults do too. Titanic, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard are amongst people’s favourite movies to watch over and over. Repeats of things we like and enjoy are good, and the familiarity is part of the pleasure – anticipating the joke or the scary bit is part of the joy.
Tonight we gather for Midnight Mass again. For most of us this is not our first time at Christmas Midnight. We’ve been before. It is part of our family tradition, or we want to hear again the familiar carols or it feels important for us to come and receive communion to set us up for Christmas and maybe for the year ahead. We’ve watched the baby Jesus being laid in the crib again, and we are hearing in the carols the stories about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the angels that we know so well. And once again we’ve heard the mysterious gospel reading we usually have at Midnight Mass “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We’ve heard it before, perhaps many times. Maybe we don’t fully understand it, but it sounds so beautiful, and familiar.
We are repeating things tonight. The Mass – the communion service – has been repeated day in and day out for nearly two thousand years. The carols we sing – well some go back to medieval times or earlier but became really popular in Victorian times and they have been repeated Christmas after Christmas since then. The crib scene we have in church is attributed to St Francis of Assisi who wanted to make the Bible stories visual. He is said to have created the first crib in 1223 with real people and live animals. Within a hundred years every church in Italy had a crib scene and then it spread throughout Europe with, for practicality purposes, statues replacing the live participants. And that tradition is repeated year after year in churches around the world. And even someone like me, who has been coming to Midnight Mass for about 40 years, still loves to look at the crib and I still, after 40 years of repeat performances, still get a lump in my throat when the baby Jesus is laid in the manger. There is nothing wrong with repeats.
We gather on this very special night to remember in action, word and song, an amazing event, when Jesus, the Word of God, came to us as a baby. He was Emmanuel – God with us. It has not been a particularly good year for the world with seemingly unresolvable conflict in Syria and Iraq, with the Ebola epidemic and the recent attack on the school in Pakistan. It may not have been a good year for us personally – we may be part of a grieving family like those in Glasgow this week, or we may have fears in our hearts for the year to come. But we gather here tonight for this repeat performance, this remembrance of the birth of Christ. The familiarity of what we do here tonight gives us stability in a fast changing world. The simplicity of the message that God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son, is rightly a comfort to us. God loves the world. His Son, Jesus Christ, came amongst us, a vulnerable baby to show us what God is like and how great his love. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our lives; however awful that seems, God does love us and his Son, the Word of God, came into the world to be the light that pierces the darkness. The light and the love that came into the world this night two thousand years ago can never be overcome by the evil and the darkness. The light and the love will always have the last word.
It’s a message that bears repeating over and over. So as we come to the part of service where we again take bread and wine, repeating the actions of Jesus and his disciples in their last supper together, let us rejoice in the repeat – the ritual performed around the world this night, and every day of every year – this breaking of bread, this blessing of wine, that proclaim God is with us now. Jesus not only comes again every year as we celebrate Christmas, but he comes every time we celebrate Mass. He is God with us not just at Christmas, but every time we eat this bread and drink this wine. May this service, this repeat of ancient ritual and celebration, be a blessing to you and all those you love this Christmastime. Amen.