Edward Rennard's Midnight Mass 2019 sermon
Why are we here? And the answer is rather more complicated than “Because our mummies and daddies made us”, although that’s important. Someone told me the other days that when there was a prolonged power cut in New York, nine months later the New York mid-wives were run off their feet. The fact that we are created says something about just how precious and how wonderful is the human being – every human being. We are like the most exquisite work of art and the most intricate piece of technology all rolled into one and more besides. There is nothing in the whole world that approaches the worth of a single woman, man or child.
As we contemplate a child tonight who reaches out and enfolds the entire Universe in his tiny hands, let us remember all children: our children, other people’s children, Afghani children, American children, Syrian children, Yemeni children, and see in them a wonderful sign of the freshness, the newness, the incredible creative power that rises out of eternity. How utterly blasphemous is any hand raised against a child.
We’re here, in church, tonight, for a variety of reasons. I’m here because you’d probably miss me if I wasn’t. But I’m also here because I want to celebrate the second most important night in the history of the Universe. We come together as the Church for many reasons: we want to worship God, especially on this holy night, or it’s the traditional thing to do, or we tagged along with the rest of the family, or we felt we wanted to come without really knowing why, or we knew we were coming to love and adore the Creator who is one with the tiny child reaching out to embrace us. I’m sure there are many more reasons. But from wherever we’re coming – from faith or from doubt or from a mixture of both faith and doubt, we are being drawn here – drawn as were the shepherds and the angels, drawn as were the magi, drawn as have been the greatest thinkers and the most spiritually alive women and men who have ever lived.
Tonight we come to touch ultimate Reality, the same Reality towards which scientist and philosopher point, the same Reality towards which poet and artist, musician and writer point. There is only one absolute Reality, only one absolute Truth, and in that Presence we kneel and adore.
Let us, gently and without rancour, pass over those whose eyes and hearts cannot or will not look beyond the material world, and glimpse, however haltingly, its Creator. Let us allow ourselves not to be disturbed by the bitter, shrill voice of the ignorant atheist fundamentalist that tells us to close our eyes to glory, and let us instead open our eyes to see the heavens and, on this night, the heavens contained in a human child.
Christian thinkers have always known that all words, all language they use about God is temporary, provisional and approximate. We cannot and should not seek to fully understand ultimate Reality, but we can in some sense know it, because God makes himself known to us. He makes himself known above all in rampant, exuberant love and generosity. He makes himself known because he loves us - in the wonder of the created order, in the stories of the Jewish people in Scripture, through loving relationships, because ‘where love is, there God is’. He reveals himself ultimately in the person of Jesus, the child who grew up to embrace us as he stretched out his arms for us for a second time, this time on the cross.
Christian thinkers have always known that within the Bible are many kinds of writings: history, poetry, law, folk-tales, quite a few mistakes and much more besides. No-one, with any sense, understands every word of the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, but in it we see human beings encountering God in all sorts of situations. The Nativity stories show us that God our Creator, high, mighty and lifted up, can also totally identify with the human race. That is the meaning of the child in the manger. In weakness, in vulnerability, in neediness, in dependency, a child reaches out, embraces us and asks us to love him. How can our hearts not respond?
There are very good reasons why we hear that shepherds and angels, wise men and even domestic animals encounter the glory of God laid upon hay. Shepherds, in Jewish society were unclean, outcasts because they could not keep the ritual purity laws. The shepherds represent for us the poor, the down-trodden and those on the margins of our society. They could even be said to represent every human being who for one reason or another, is not regarded as ‘mainstream’: the child with learning difficulties, the adult with mental illness, the person who has a problem with substance abuse, the immigrant, the refugee, LGBT+, and the poor sod who keeps finding herself or himself in prison for petty crime.
The angels are there to show us that even God’s messengers in the spiritual realms, along with the whole Universe, bow down before the human child in whom God is pleased to make his home. The magi, or wise men, come to the manger throne to show that all human wisdom and all human institutions find their true meaning in Christ:
“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.”
Richard Crashaw, one of the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, wrote these words:
“Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.”
This is what the Incarnation – ‘God one with us’ means. Incarnation brings heaven to earth and lifts earth to heaven. It is critically important to understand that ‘God one with us’ in Bethlehem round about 2000 years ago was not a one off. God is still present in his world. Again and again he comes to his people. In joy and in sorrow he comes to his people. When we rejoice, he laughs with us. When we cry, he weeps with us. We learn, through the life of Jesus, that God is passionately concerned with his world, passionately concerned with each one of us. We may choose to leave him, but he will never leave us.
The greatest sign of this is the Church, meeting Sunday by Sunday, celebrating the Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion – names don’t matter. Here we obey Jesus’s command at the Last Supper: ‘This is my body; this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me’. As we celebrate the Eucharist together, as we do tonight, Christ is present, Christ is incarnate in the Church community, in us, and that community seeks to bring his love and his healing to the world around.
Why are we here? We are here because we are seekers. Some may feel they are further along in their exploration. Some may feel that they are further behind. Wherever we are, early or late on in our exploration, Christ walks with us. Fortunately for us, his patience is as he is – infinite. And we are here so that we can go out to show Christ’s glory which first shone in the manger to the world.
This is my last Midnight Mass sermon. I am retiring on May 1st after nearly 20 years as Rector of Halesworth and the Blyth Valley. I’ve tried to be here for everyone, not just church people. I have a final request to make to those of you who are seekers, or who are people of faith, but who aren’t as yet part of the Christian Church worshipping regularly together and working for love, peace and justice in the big wide world. Please engage with the local church. You will find it strange at first, but the Church needs you and you need the Church. When you grow into it and become part of it, you will change the Church dramatically and for ever. The people of this parish church bear faithful witness to Christ, but without you the church here could die.
May God bless you and those whom you love, and even those whom you don’t like very much, this Christ Mass tide and for ever.