A sermon for midnight mass.
Last night, with still six sermons left to write, I found myself remembering that whatever I do or fail to do, whatever I say or don’t say from the pulpit, Christmas will still happen. Christ is still come among us. God is still with us. Christmas itself does not happen because of me. In fact, at this rate, it is more likely to happen despite me.
I’d be the first person to point out that the whole of the Christmas story depends on the compliance of the key players: Mary has to say yes, Joseph has to support her; the Shepherds have to listen to the angels and summon the enthusiasm to leave their flocks and visit the new baby; the magi have to notice the star and then take the risk of following it….
But to turn that around, isn’t the miracle that it all happened at all? If God’s son was to be born on earth, there would have been far easier ways. A different place, a different time. A less ad hoc plan. In fact, it almost seems as if the Christmas story happened despite all the things that could have, or did, go wrong.
Christ was born:
Despite Mary and Joseph not being married yet, and the risk that both of them took to go along with the plan…
Despite the fact that they had to travel miles to go and register themselves for tax…
Despite the fact that with the Romans in charge, being born a Jew was a serious disadvantage in the first place…
Despite all the inns being full and the new parents and child having to sleep in a stable…
Despite Herod’s unspeakable act of rage and fear and jealousy as he tried to root out and kill the baby Jesus…
Despite all this, the incarnation happened. Christ was born. God came into his own world, became subject to its dangers, and ‘pitched his tent among our own’.
The Christmas story is a remarkable tale of how the purposes of God triumph over circumstance, over sin, over inconvenience, over hardship, over sheer improbability… It was time for the Saviour of the World to come. And come he did, despite everything.
It’s a story that delicately balances the overwhelming loving purposes of God for the world, and the way that he draws us into that loving plan, giving his people crucial parts to play, and directing the action, but allowing and encouraging them to improvise and rewriting the script to take account of each twist and turn, and to allow for the weakness of those he has chosen for his starring roles.
Perhaps the key (at least a key, for me) in all these ‘despites’ is that perfection is not the aim. There is one thing that absolutely has to happen in the story: Jesus has to be born. Everything else was window dressing. Yes, a house would have been nice rather than a stable, and yes, it would have been nice to do without the long journey. These things would have made the whole thing more comfortable. But despite most things going wrong, Jesus was born. Christ came into the world. Emmanuel – God with us.
Seeing the story in that light made me question again my own priorities this Christmas. Was I, in fact, worrying about the window dressing, the things that would make everything feel good, and forgetting the one thing that mattered above all else? Where was the real presence of Jesus Christ in all that I am doing at Christmas, or had it got a bit lost in all the photocopying of service sheets, last-minute writing of sermons, singing of descants, guilt at not having done a great deal on the domestic front recently, and everything else. You may all, of course, be paragons of organisation and domestic bless, everything ordered and precise, and all relationship healthy and happy, nothing at all to mar a perfect day. If that’s you, that’s great, well done! But I suspect you’re in the minority!
So that’s what I want to share with you tonight. You can have a Christmas in which everything goes wrong. And yet that same Christmas can be everything it needs to be if the one thing that really matters is in place. I’ve had to work out all over again – as I do every Christmas – what that one thing is, or it’ll get lost under all my attempts to get everything right, and then under all my flapping and worrying about having got so many things wrong or failed to do them at all. Christmas has such a lead-up and so much expectation that anything short of perfection can feel like failure.
God knew that the world he had made was – and still is – in a mess, and he knew that he was coming into one of the messiest, most difficult, and most imperfect times and places in that world. That’s where and when he chose to come, because the light shines most brightly in the dark.
So tonight, I invite you to work out what’s most important. Find your answer in a reading: it might be, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ or ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’; find it in a carol: it might be ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’ or ‘be bear me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay’; find it in a moment’s silence; find it in seeing a loved one you’ve not seen for ages, or in the greeting of a stranger; or find it in a prayer, in a sigh…. Whatever else you do, and however hard to decide to try to make everything perfect this Christmas, remember that the Christmas story is one in which almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and yet it changed the world, because it was the moment that God came to us and stayed with us, and he is with us still – and that depends not on us, but on God.