This sermon was given by Rev Deborah at the midnight service on Christmas Eve 2017. She was assisted by our organist Tom.
How many carol services have you been to this year? However many that may be you there is something about singing carols that is timeless. At the end of our own Carol Service, a week last Sunday, several people said to me ‘it is beginning to feel like Christmas now’.
There are several categories of Christmas carols/songs.
These are obviously secular and don’t mention much, if anything, about the real meaning of Christmas.
They are the kind of carols in which our pictures of the holy family are softened, even in their depiction of all that is lovely and fair. Mary in her blue robe gazing lovingly at her glowing new born, Joseph attentive to both of their needs, shepherds gazing on in wonder, their charges puffy white balls of cotton in the background, and rays of angels’ glory streaming in through the windows of the well-swept stable with strains of “Joy to the World” in the background. It’s a nice picture, beautiful even but of course it wasn’t like that.
In Luke’s gospel we are brought back to reality of the nativity. His story begins with the naming of the rulers of this world who were responsible for maintaining and enforcing the Pax Romana. He sets his story amid a census, the registering, counting, and taxing everyone. Yet this is only background for Luke; the main action takes place elsewhere, on the fringe, far away from the centres of power, in a little backwater town called Bethlehem.
The third type of carols tell the Christmas story with more realism and detail.
A travel-weary couple give birth to a baby and lay him in a manger. That which is ordinary fills the room, the sweat, the blood, makeshift blankets and nappies, the raw and immediate joy that comes with new life. It is one of those time-stops-still moments. The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The scene then changes to that of a dark hillside made busy by the pastoral industry of raising sheep.
The shepherds were outsiders, whose lives were reputed to be so shifty and unreliable that they were not permitted to give testimony in a court of law. They were the poor, the lowly, the marginalised. They were the undesirables of the first century, the people on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This scene is transformed by the arrival of angels and the good news, the birth of a baby, born of David’s line, lying in a manger, bringing peace and goodwill to all. And so, the Christmas story is told.
However, there is a fourth type of carol which focus on much deeper, incomprehensible and profound ideas about God. They go beyond the narrative of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the shepherds to God incarnate, once again the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The nativity scene is set in this carol but then the deeper meaning of the birth of Jesus emerges. It begins with a specific geographical location but ends in a spiritual place. Bethlehem’s streets beneath the stars become our hearts beneath the hopes and fears. The wondrous gift of Jesus speaks of the spiritual rebirth that we all need to discover the intimacy of God in our lives, a gift given to us. Christ in us, Emmanuel.
‘Hark the herald angels sing’ follows this theme through, focuses less on the surroundings of Jesus birth and more of the wonder and meaning of the incarnation. The birth of Jesus inaugurates a new way for God to be with us. God works out the gift of divine life for us through a human life like ours. ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, born as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel’. God, the divine, becomes human, a baby, so that he can truly be Emmanuel, God with us. God makes a difference by living humanly as you and I do. And yet we go beyond that. The real message of Christ’s coming is our salvation, which his death on the cross will bring. It is the reconciliation between God and sinners, defeating death, bringing life eternal. Paul’s letter to Titus, our second reading, talks about God’s grace, bringing salvation to all. He gave himself for us so that we can be a holy people.
As we begin to get caught up with the wonder of Jesus birth, and its implications, we too are drawn, like the shepherds into that hymn of praise from the angels, ‘glory to the new born king’. We give unambiguous praise to the Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness, greeting him as he arrives on earth as a king. There is the sense of the immediate, Christmas is happening here and now, not just two thousand years ago.
This message is repeated in ‘O Come all ye faithful’.
The full version of this carol tells us the whole of the nativity story, reminding us of the various journeys involved in the Christmas story. It tells us of
- God’s journey from heaven to earth (God of God …. lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb)
- The journey of the shepherds (see how the shepherds, summoned to the stable)
- The journey of the angels to the shepherds (sing choirs of angels)
- And we are too called into that scene ‘O come all ye faithful’
It is our own personal invitation to step into the nativity story, to make our own journey and to be there in the Bethlehem stable, joining our worship to that of the others who have already travelled to this place. God has travelled from heaven to the hay. Jesus is God, arrived on earth as a child. The angels proclaimed the good news and the shepherds travelled post haste to worship the baby in the stable. All of heaven is involved in the celebration, and we too are invited to meet and greet God’s arrival for ourselves, to respond to the wonder of this unique event with adoration.
The climax is the last verse as we offer our reply ‘yea Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning, Jesus to thee be glory given.’ Its triumphant message is a counter cultural to the ringing of high street tills, the revelry of parties and the blare of television schedules that seem to have taken over Christmas in our day and age. It rises above the difficulties that our world is currently facing, war and violence, poverty and injustice, the misuse of the world’s precious resources, political uncertainty, increasing homelessness as well as our own personal fears and worries and offers hope, love and peace. Something of that hope is seen in our first reading:
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shone. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.’
A message of hope to the Israelites which is relevant to us today as we see this fulfilment in Jesus, the mystery of the incarnation.
Christmas isn’t just a spot of light relief in the darkness of winter (in the northern hemisphere at least). It is an event that reverberates across in heaven and earth and across time. It takes eternity as its setting and reminds us that angels and archangels and all the company of heaven (words that are drawn from the liturgy of Holy Communion) join in the endless praise and worship of Christ our Lord.
‘Oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord’ is not just for this holy night, or the one event of the baby in a manger, but it is for all people, in all places and at all times. It is our response to the Christ child, God with us, Emmanuel, our hope for the future, both now and always, as we worship Christ the Lord on this holy night. Amen
Tom then played ‘O Holy Night‘ as Carol and Jennifer sang it.