A very happy and blessed Christmas to everyone! And a little late posting but here, on the 6th day of Christmas, is the sermon I preached at the Midnight Mass.
Two years ago – if you can remember back that long – I talked in my sermon at the midnight mass about Members of Parliament. And in particular about what was surely the most unpopular decision that has ever been made in the House of Commons. Little did I know then what would come to pass.
I explained two years ago that the most unpopular decision made in Parliament was not a recent one, but was made back in the year 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.
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 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. Or at least – that’s what I said two years ago. How was I to know what would then happen. How was I to know then, that after a year when churches were closed to worship for much of the time, that by the time we reached Christmas last year that much of what we take for granted at Christmas would be banned.
Because of the pandemic we were in Tier 4, you may remember, last Christmas! There was no Midnight Mass, though we managed a small service on Christmas Day morning. Celebrating with friends and families was out. No Christmas parties – well, not for most of us at any rate! Some people seem to have managed parties despite the ban on them. We were allowed to spend Christmas with our household and support bubbles – and that was it. For the first time since Christmas was reinstated in 1660, much of it was disallowed again. And again this year, we have been through the last few weeks wondering – is it on, or is it off again? The papers have been constantly speculating – will Christmas be banned again this year?
Well – according to current government advice you can this year have Christmas parties as long as, to quote a certain government minister who I won’t name, there’s “no snogging under the mistletoe!”
So this year we are allowed to celebrate up to a point. And it’s important to celebrate Christmas, though exactly how and with whom we celebrate may look different this year. You shouldn’t – you can’t as Parliament discovered – totally ban people celebrating Christmas. Christmas is central to our understanding of God’s desire to be with his people. So although the things we do this Christmas may be different from usual, Christmas itself – that which is at the heart of Christmas, the birth of God as a baby in a manger – can always be celebrated no matter what. We don’t need parties and presents to rejoice that – as Saint John reminds us – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Christmas is very much a celebration of light, a festival of light, coming right at the darkest time of the year. Saint John, in our gospel reading, talks about light shining in darkness. 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 dark quite deliberately used the images 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 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 only too well at the moment, is never straight-forward – and often we don’t fully understand things that happen to us. We are still unsure about what we will – or will not – be able to do next week. 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, especially at present.
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 as well as you can, and as safely as you can – but remember, always, why you celebrate. And have a very happy and blessed Christmas.