The sermon preached at Midnight Mass. Here’s what I said.
It is something of a tradition for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading religious figures, in their Christmas sermons to make some reference to the state of the nation or the world, or to comment on political leaders – and to remind us of why we need the light of Christmas to shine into the darkness of the reality of the world we live in.
Not wishing to be outdone by the Archbishop of Canterbury, I thought this year I would follow his example. So I want to say something tonight about Members of Parliament – and in particular about one of the worst decisions that has ever been made in the House of Commons.
Don’t worry – it’s not what you think! The worst decision is not a recent one. But it must surely be the most unpopular decision ever made the House of Commons in its history and it has its 375th anniversary this year. The year was 1644. It was during the Civil War, and the mostly Puritan House of Commons disapproved of people enjoying themselves, especially at Christmas. So Members of Parliament decided to pass a law banning Christmas. Yes! Really!
They banned all celebration of Christmas on the grounds that the celebration of Christ’s birth was no more than an excuse, they claimed, for drunkenness and debauchery. People they said were just celebrating too much. So Christmas Day was made an ordinary working day. Eating mince pies was declared illegal, as was the singing of Christmas carols, and putting up Christmas decorations and the like. Anything to do with Christmas was banned, even attending church. For several years during the 1650s it was impossible to find a single Christmas service to attend across London.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that much of what you have been doing today and will be doing tomorrow could at one time have resulted in you being arrested! Not surprisingly the ban on Christmas was hugely unpopular. People simply carried on celebrating in private homes, though many were arrested and charged – even for simply eating a mince pie! And in Wales, apparently, they just ignored the law! And in 1660, when the monarchy was restored, so was Christmas. The biggest mistake ever made by the House of Commons was overturned.
And we’ve been celebrating Christmas ever since.
And it’s important to celebrate Christmas as it should be celebrated. You shouldn’t – indeed, you can’t as Parliament discovered – ban people celebrating Christmas. Christmas is central to our understanding of God’s desire to be with his people.
And so at this wet and cold time of year our Christmas decorations brighten up the darkness of December nights. And especially the lights – not just on the tree now but in many cases all over the outside of the house.
A few years ago I once heard someone on the Today programme on radio 4 complaining about this trend. He said that people should be banned from decorating the outsides of their houses with lights. What’s that all about? I couldn’t help feeling that even if such decorations were not his cup of tea that by calling for a ban he had somehow completely missed the plot. Christmas and lights go together.
Light is such a positive thing. Being in total darkness can be an uncomfortable experience. Perhaps in a world where we can switch lights on whenever we please we don’t appreciate just how all-enveloping true darkness can be. But Saint John, writing for people who did not have access to instant light whenever it got a bit dark quite deliberately used the image of light and darkness when he wrote about the Son of God coming into our world: The light shines in the darkness he says.
And Saint John explains how Jesus, the true light, was sent from God to bring light into the darkness of this world.
And as we remember on Christmas Day day what God did two thousand years ago we also recognise that God came – and still comes today – to be with us and to shine his light into our hearts. And that is something to celebrate!
Because life, as we all know, is never straight-forward – and often we don’t fully understand things that happen to us. What we can do is allow the light of God’s love, seen supremely in Jesus, to shine into our lives and help to influence the way we live, and the way we respond to life’s demands, and the way we relate to each other.
And so despite the greatest efforts of the House of Commons in 1644 to stop Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus because his message of love makes a difference to our world. We celebrate because God has come into our world to share our life with us. We celebrate with each other, with our families and our friends, because the light, in the person of Jesus, has overcome the darkness that seems to fill so much of our world.
We cannot know what the coming year will bring in terms of our health, our relationships, our finances – but we can make sure that we put ourselves firmly into that circle of light which is Jesus our Lord. Take him into your hearts this day and be truly enlightened. So celebrate – but remember why you celebrate. And have a very happy and blessed Christmas.