Sermon preached on Christmas Day (25 December 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend David Ison preaches on Christmas Day.
‘Let them know it’s Christmas time’ sang the celebrities on the Band Aid song to raise money to save people from Ebola. But that assumes we all have a certain kind of experience of what Christmas time is. Which is true up to a point, but only for some.
Like glorious music, for many of you Christmas reaches a crescendo today. Christmas shopping, carol services, exchanges of cards and gifts; organising the food and who you’re going to be with, or offend, this Christmas.
You may have already opened the presents, or are very disciplined and leave them till after the Queen’s speech. Christmas time for many is a time to celebrate, to give, to be with others, and you’re here in this Cathedral of course to celebrate above all the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.
Today can feel a magical day: the sense of things being different, and not just because there’s no public transport. It’s 100 years ago today that British and German soldiers sang carols across the lines and wished each other a happy Christmas, setting aside ritualised hatred to remember their common humanity before God.
And it’s that sense of giving, of community, of magic, which the Band Aid song evokes…
But I guess that for a number of you here this morning, Christmas doesn’t feel much like – Christmas: because you’re working or studying in London and can’t be at home, or you don’t have a family to go home to, or because you’re on your own, and have no one to celebrate with.
And I guess too that for a smaller number, Christmas carries more sorrow than joy: the burden of bereavement, the loss of relationship or family life, dark memories, difficult times.
And for even the happiest of us, by the end of today the turkey will be in pieces, the dirty dishes piled up, the children over-excited and the indigestion rumbling away as we watch another Christmas special on the television.
The magic of Christmas dims, the shooting on the Western Front starts up all over again, the innocence of the nativity play gives way to the realism of a world of competition, and we have to let ‘them’ know that it’s not Christmas time any more, even if once it was...
The light shines in the darkness, says St John in his gospel, and the darkness did not overcome it.
We are in a time of shining light into dark corners. The uncovering of abuse by individuals and institutions is one aspect, from the Savile enquiry to the report on torture by America’s CIA.
Another is the brave reporting, by journalists in peril of their lives, of atrocities carried out around the world; yet another are the disclosures from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.
But the light shone into dark corners can seem the cold light of day, the harsh light of reality, a light which isn’t always kind. Some of you this morning are sitting in the sun streaming through the Cathedral windows, and if you turn to look at it, it will blind you: it’s not comfortable to face the light.
And so we may prefer candlelit romance to gritty reality; not least because none of us is wholly innocent – we all have our inner darkness: the things others did to us, the thoughts and deeds we regret, or even worse, the evil things in our past or our present which we hang on to and which we will not let go.
Even the most apparently innocent have their dark side: as the church historian Diarmaid McCullough has written, ‘one definition of a saint is someone who has not been researched well enough’ (Silence p.203).
But God is light, and in God is no darkness at all.
Part of the reason why God comes to us in Jesus, in a human child, is to reveal that God knows both innocence and experience.
God knows all there is to know, the worst as well as the best about you and me and everyone and everything, and yet loves us none the less – and dares to place himself at our mercy at Christmas.
Here’s a different take on the baby Jesus from your average Christmas carol, in a poem by UA Fanthorpe which picks up the myth of the fairies who give gifts to new born royal babies. It’s called: The Wicked Fairy At The Manger:
My gift for the child:
No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes. But the wrong sort –
The workshy, women, wimps,
Petty infringers of the law, persons
With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;
The bottom rung.
I think we’ll make it
Public, prolonged, painful.
Right, said the baby. That was roughly
What we had in mind.
God knows how bad it will be, and yet comes anyway.
Yes, Christmas is a time for joy and giving, but not for the suspension of disbelief or the denial of reality.
For the joy and giving of Christmas is for all year round, and takes place in our broken and painful world, and not in denial of it.
‘Let them know it’s Christmas time’ is more than the title of a fundraising song. It’s a call to share the good news of the Christian gospel.
For God comes among us in Christ as a shining light with eyes open wide, to rejoice and suffer with us, and to give us the power to become children of God - wherever we may be this Christmas, and any other, time.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.