Sometimes Christmas and New Year’s Eve seem to be regarded as polar opposites. Christmas happens in the day, New Year’s is all about the evening. For many, Christmas is about family, New Year is about friends. Christmas is reasonably sober – especially if we have services to take – New Year less so.
But I think there is, or can be, something very holy about New Year. New Year is a time to be with people that will shape us for the year ahead. It is a time to celebrate and affirm relationships while reflecting on what has been and what is to come.
Over this year I have become convinced that being with is a core theme of the Gospel. The incarnation was God coming to be with us. We are then called and sent out to be with others.
Preaching at Midnight Mass was alaways going to be quite a challenge. This year with the news leaving me feeling overwhelmed and yet desperate to engage it was even more so. But being with seemed to bring it all together. So as you prepare to be with others tonight, or to be with God in reflection I have shared my sermon with you. It is based on the prologue of John’s Gospel ( Chapter 1 vs 1 – 14 and Isaiah 52 v 7-10)
Sometimes a Word is not enough
Sometimes a word is not enough. Don’t get me wrong – of course words are important. I have spent my life working with words and love crafting meaning, shaping sense and burrowing down to find the essence of an idea or concept. Today’s readings take words to another level. John’s opening to the Gospel makes it clear that this word, God’s word, is the source of all life. This word is God. This word is a light that enlightens everyone. This word has the power to transform human beings, like me and you, into the children of God. John’s emphasis on the Word as creator reminds us of the creation stories we read in Genesis when God spoke the creation into being – God spoke and light and dark separated, order was formed out of chaos.
The reading from Isaiah reminds us too that this was a culture where messengers carried the words of the powerful. When travel was difficult and uncomfortable the word was taken to the people and carried tremendous force. Battles were decreed, laws proclaimed, a census could be called like the one that uprooted the family into which Jesus was born, family news would have been spread this way too.
Without our words we are hugely limited. I feel for those who arrive in a country alone where the language is new to them and hard to learn. Imagine a day with no texts, phone-calls or e-mails, a day when newspapers and TV made no sense and conversations were a meaningless jumble of words.
But still sometimes words are not enough. I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday a time about 20 years ago when I was in hospital for a week. Struck down in the midst of my health and youth by tuberculosis I was being barrier nursed and kept in an isolation room. My family made a massive effort to see me but still I spent many hours alone, day and night melded into one long time of emptiness and waiting. Longing for the touch of someone who cared, someone not wearing latex gloves – longing for the presence of those I loved.
I am sure many of us have had days, nights or weeks like that. Waiting for news of hospital tests, mourning the death of a loved one, struggling with a difficult relationship. Cards, letters and phone calls are nice but what is really needed is someone who will be with you.
And so the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
Jean Vanier in a beautiful meditation on John’s Gospel says: this is the beginning, the end, the centre and the heart of the Gospel, the heart the centre the beginning and the end of history.
For many of us this moment in time is the crux of all history, when BC became AD. God, creator of all things, takes flesh, becomes a vulnerable baby and as the Greek says, built his tent among us. God came to be with us, to dwell with us, to live among us.
The reading from Isaiah is clear about what happens when God shows up and is found among us. The first thing the Lord brings is comfort. Comfort to a broken city. The comfort of the possibility of peace. Comfort in the certainty that amidst the chaos God reigns, God is stronger than evil. Comfort of salvation – being made safe with God.
It’s the same when Jesus is born. The first thing the angels announce is peace on earth. Peace and Goodwill to all.
We know this peace and good will is not the end of wars, conflict and violence. It is not the beginning of a life untouched by sadness, illness and pain. It is rather the peace that comes from knowing and being known by God who is the source of all life and yet humbled himself to be born into a human family, a family which knew about homelessness, poverty and exile.
Being known and knowing, being seen and seeing, Understanding and being understood, listening and being heard. Those were the things I wanted when I lay for hours in the little green hospital room. This was the comfort I longed for. More than wanting to be strong and well I wanted to be loved, connected and held. We have all heard children crying for their parents – children crying for the one that truly knows them to be with them. They are calling for comfort – comfort that comes from the presence of a loved one.
From the beginning of creation God has called us to be his agents, his stewards, his servants, his people, his friends.
From the first times God called us to care for the earth and all that is in it. Just as God came to be with us so we are called to be with others.
Christmas can be a time of joy, tenderness, generosity and affection. It can also be a time of aching loneliness, regret, isolation and hopelessness. There are queues of people who want to volunteer over Christmas – some of them because they do not want Christmas alone.
Through a friend on Facebook I am following the work of a guy called Brendan from Leicester who has been out in Lesbos – the tiny Greek island on which hundreds of refugees land every day after a terrifying crossing. There are many volunteers from many different faiths and nations who have left their homes and families to be with some of the most vulnerable people in our world. Brendan talks about standing on the rocks below a lighthouse, pointing people to safety and helping them up the path to the check-in point. He describes sitting with people who are bereaved, sharing food and offering wordless comfort to people who have endured great suffering. Amongst the sadness he talks of the great joy, the joy of arriving in safety, the tears of gratitude, the young man with a little English who hugged him as he helped him out of the sea and said; “Thank you England, you are beautiful.”
Through the amazing gift of Jesus, God reminds us this Christmas that the greatest gift we can give to each other, the greatest gift we can give to the stranger is to be with one another.
To be companions – those that break bread together as we will do symbolically later in this service. To be accompaniers – those who travel with others to difficult places, to be people of hospitality – offering a welcome to those who feel themselves outsiders. And as accompaniers, companions and welcomers, as people prepared to stop and simply be with others, we find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus, the word made flesh who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.