Alleluia, unto us a child is born. O come let us adore him, Alleluia.
It is always a joy to see a full church, and tonight it is especially good to welcome you, whether you are a regular attender, a first-time visitor, or a returning wanderer. This is a night for welcome, for home-coming, for celebration of the miracle that is the Incarnation, God stooping to earth, offering us the incredible gift of the divine child who will bring salvation to all people.
It’s lovely to see a full cathedral, but I want to share a secret with you: it’s also lovely to be the only person in here. Sometimes, on a morning, I will come in to say Morning Prayer or simply to spend a little quiet time. The stained glass sheds its pastel beauty on the walls, and I soak up the peace of this holy space. Unlike pretty much every other space in my life, there is no hum of machinery in here: no computer, no refrigerator, and regrettably no HVAC. In those moments it’s possible to take seriously the image of Jesus as Prince of Peace, a title that often seems supremely ironic in our world.
As I sit here alone, I am aware of the world outside the walls. I hear the construction machinery next door. I hear ambulances screaming up 5th Avenue to Mercy Hospital. I hear the buses and the motorbikes, and if the wind is in the right direction I hear the planes coming in to land. The world is anything but peaceful, and yet I give thanks for the peace in here, however momentary it may be. A favorite prayer often comes to mind: O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: by the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tonight we gather to worship the son of God, laid in a manger, sheltered in a stable. The light shines on the icon of the Holy Family, indeed, the image itself seems to emit light. The stable icon is a compressed, concentrated burst of light in a dark world. The great Anglican poet George Herbert gives us this glowing image of the Christ child, “whose glorious yet contracted light, / Wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger.”
The Isaiah reading we heard reminds us of the violent context within which God promises us peace.
The world is in darkness. Millions at war abroad. Gun violence, bigotry, and road rage at home. We spend more and more on Christmas presents we don’t need while children go hungry or die from preventable diseases. Greek islands are sinking under the weight of refugees. National borders are under siege. Sub-Saharan Africa is turning into desert because of climate change. Isis is laying waste the cradle of civilization. There is no shortage of darkness. We need the light today more than ever. As we gaze at the manger we acknowledge the elusiveness of God’s peace.
Two recent memories rise up for me tonight, each of them providing a startling contrast to this peaceful scene. First, the Living Nativity on stage at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the climax of the annual Christmas Spectacular. And it certainly was spectacular: the huge stage crowded with people and animals, loud music, lots of glitz, even live sheep and camels. A scene that’s probably about as far away from the historic reality as anything could be. Not much peace there.
Second, a memory of visiting Bethlehem last spring. The ancient and magnificent Church of the Nativity, built over the supposed site of Jesus’s birth, is the scene of constant noise and jostling, crowds pouring in from all over the world, vendors, tour guides, even clergy adding to the pandemonium. There is little peace to be found in the Holy Land, where violent oppression and injustice hold sway.
And we are all too familiar with the images of refugee families streaming from the Middle East to seek safety in Europe. The pictures of children hungry, dirty, soaked, even drowned, stand shockingly beside the cosy scene in the stable, to challenge us to do what we can to give those children hope and life. We cannot be at peace otherwise.
We are drawn to the light in the context of a world full of darkness. We kneel in wonder before the prince of peace, knowing all the while that war and violence lurk in the shadows, never further away than a news report or the chime of a cell phone. We come here to be still and know that God is God, fleetingly relieved of the stress and busyness of the season, the bullying of the advertising industry, the shrillness of the politicians, escaping the darkness for an hour to bask in the light, to have our souls rekindled and our hearts filled, so that we may be renewed and restored for what awaits us beyond these walls. We come here to find a place of refuge and respite, beautifully framed by John Chane’s manifesto on the north west door. That refuge is available whenever we enter those doors, not only at Christmas but every Sunday, every day of the year. And it’s available to everyone, no exceptions.
We have come into the light tonight, but we are not free of the darkness. We come burdened by yokes of worry, fear, anxiety, insufficiency, rejection. We come with all the memories of Christmases past hanging around our necks like Jacob Marley’s chains. We come with all kinds of expectations and hopes dancing before us like mirages in the desert. This Christmas, all will be made well. This Christmas, our families will be reconciled. This Christmas, there will be peace on earth. This Christmas, humanity will get the message of unconditional love: Fear will give way to faith, hatred to trust, selfishness to generosity.
I wonder what gifts you bring to the manger tonight. Do you bring a failed relationship? Do you bring a pile of debt? Do you bring old wounds, estrangement from family, a longing that you cannot articulate? What weighs you down as you stand in the light for this brief hour? What might you let go of as you open your hands to receive Communion? We come to grieve, to celebrate, to seek comfort or companionship or healing. We come knowing that the world outside will be just as dark when we leave as it was when we entered. We come hoping to take some of the light away with us, to push the darkness back.
More than the carols, more than the traditions and the reunions and the gifts under the tree, what our aching hearts really crave at Christmas is the possibility of change. The birth of this one child, God’s child, to an unmarried teenager, in poverty and squalor, long ago in an obscure corner of a vanished empire, somehow delivers the promise that change is possible. We know that the historic fact of his birth changed the history of the world. We know that his life and death have given meaning to millions of lives, have inspired believers to acts of heroism and martyrdom, have also, tragically, spawned wars and crusades and inquisitions. The birth of this one child changed everything. And when we allow Jesus to be born into our hearts, everything changes for us.
If you open your heart to this child, this gift, what will change in you? How will you be different leaving here tonight after we have shared the Communion of Christ’s body and blood, after we have exchanged a gesture of peace and received a Christmas blessing?
How will we reflect the light that has shone in our hearts tonight?
Will you be a peacemaker? Will you stand up for the Muslim woman insulted because of her head covering, or the homeless man abused by passers-by? Will you work for our community to welcome refugees? Will you practice kindness to those who disagree with you, and refuse to engage in name-calling, insults, or objectification of those who seem different or awkward?
Will you look for the Christ in everyone you meet, and allow them to see the Christ light shining in you?
God’s gift to each of us tonight is an invitation to share the light. To allow the beauty of this moment to seep into our souls. To let God’s unconditional love, personified in the holy child, prise open our hearts, and so change the world.
Alleluia. Unto us a child is born. O come, let us adore him.
Christmas Eve, 2015
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges