Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


The Nativity
December 25, 2010, 9:21 am
Filed under: Sermons

Sermon preached at Midnight Mass, All Saints, Clifton, 25th December 2010

Why are we here? And what do we expect? We have all chosen to come here, on this Christmas Eve, at this midnight hour: but for what?

“were we led all that way for

Birth or Death?”

So mused the Magi in T.S. Eliot’s poem, continuing:

“There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.”

Yes, we are here to celebrate a Birth, not just the birth of a baby two thousand years ago, but the birth, or maybe re-birth, of a whole world- even our own, re-birth.

“I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” (Journey of the Magi)

Jesus was born, God became man, in order in the fullness of time to die; and by dying to show us that it is only through death we enter into the fullness of life.

This Midnight Mass is a paradox. We celebrate the birth of Christ by recalling his death. “When we eat this Bread, and Drink this cup, we show forth the Lord’s death, until he comes.” This is the Mystery of Faith: that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. But now, we celebrate his birth.

Eliot also wrote:

“There are several attitudes towards Christmas,

Some of which we may disregard:

The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,

The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),

And the childish- which is not that of the child

For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel

Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree

Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:

Let him continue in the spirit of wonder

At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext…

If we can manage to be child-like rather than childish, we too will wonder at the Event, not simply make the Feast a pretext for eating and drinking and general rowdiness, or the torpidity that comes from over-indulgence, or the cynicism that is a reaction to commercialisation.

We are here, are we not, to participate in a joy that is mixed with awe. “Fear not!” said the angel to the shepherds.

“The accumulated memories of annual emotion

May be concentrated into a great joy

Which is also a great fear, as on the occasion

When fear came upon every soul:

Because the beginning shall remind us of the end

And the first coming of the second coming.” (The Cultivation of Christmas Trees)

The World needs Christ, and so the World needs Christmas. The World today is not, overall, a happier or a fairer place than it was two thousand years ago:

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the Angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring.” (EH Sears, It came upon the midnight clear)

And if the World still needs the Christmas message, who will bring it to them if not us Christians? And how shall we do that unless it first permeates our own hearts? Eliot asks again:

“Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World

And that lions no longer need keepers?

Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be?

Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments

As you can boast in the way of polite society

Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?”  (Chor. Rock, VI)

How prophetic the poet sounds, when we reflect on the near-century since he wrote these words:

“But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before;

though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.

Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god;

and this has never happened before

That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,

And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

… men have forgotten

All gods except Usury, Lust and Power.” (ibid)

And he asked,

“The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned,

what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?” (ibid, VII)

But he reflected, more encouragingly,

“Our age is an age of moderate virtue

And of moderate vice

When men will not lay down the Cross

Because they will never assume it.

Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,

To men of faith and conviction.” (ibid, VIII)

Nothing is impossible to men of faith and conviction. Can we be such people? Can we have the faith and conviction to proclaim Christ to the World?

St John says that Christ came into the world as “the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light the darkness could not overpower.” But Jesus told his friends that they too should be lights in the world: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

“O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!

Too bright for mortal vision…

O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!

We thank Thee for the lights which we have kindled,

The light of altar and of sanctuary;

Small lights of those who meditate at midnight…”

Here we are at midnight, with our small lights. The poet reminds us that:

“In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light. We are glad when the day ends,

when the play ends; and ecstasy is too much pain.

We are children quickly tired… we sleep and are glad to sleep,

Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night and the seasons.

And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;

Forever must quench, forever relight the flame…”

Why have we come, to this place, at this time?

“If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same; you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.”

Each year, we need to relight the flame of Faith in our hearts. We have come to worship, to acknowledge the greatness of God, who for our sakes made himself so small. We have come “to see this thing that has come to pass, and the Child lying in the manger.” With Mary and Joseph, with the shepherds and with the wise men,

O come let us adore him!

O come let us adore him!

O come let us adore him,

Christ the Lord.

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