Sermon Midnight 2013
I saw a cartoon last week. It was about the 3 wise-men. They were gathered around a computer screen because they were following the star on Twitter.
You can recognise a successful story by the way it can be adapted to almost any time and culture.
Wise-men searching for an elusive truth.
A family desperately seeking a safe place to bring their child into the world.
A message of life changing proportions coming in the loneliness of the night.
An ego and fear driven man of power who has few scruples about the means to hold on to what he thinks is his.
People may decry such stories as myth, without perhaps grasping quite what myths are and why we need them.
They travel so well because they have universal reference to what it is to be human.
But at Midnight Mass the stories we associate with the birth of Jesus live on in the carols but are usually absent from the readings.
Neither the OT prophet Isaiah or the Evangelist, Saint John, are interested in specifics.
Isaiah has an inspiring message about a future divine intervention in the affairs of men, which will come to the attention of the whole world.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
Who brings good news,
Who announces salvation,
Who says to Zion.
‘ Your God reigns.
And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
St John sees that prophecy as being fulfilled in the events he is about to recount in the rest of his Gospel, but in chapter 1, which is his introduction, he summarises what is to come using poetic and theological language.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son.
But unlike Isaiah, who looks with hopeful eyes into the future, St John looks deep into the past.
His beginning is not in Nazareth or Bethlehem, but at the point that the universe flashed into existence, and life became a possibility.
In the beginning was the Word.
His take on that most fundamental of all philosophical questions, ‘ why is there anything at all?’, is look to Christ and you might find out.
If you ever decide to read the 4 gospels along-side one another, you will notice that Matthew and Luke very closely follow Mark, and can indeed be seen as commentaries on what he has to say, but when you get to St John you encounter something much more original.
He appears to know what the others have written but from the off wants to tell it his way.
So there must be some reason why he avoids mentioning any details about Jesus birth. One reason might be that, as I said earlier, the Nativity stories are just so good. They get in the way of the bigger story he wants to tell.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to go whale watching off the New Zealand coast- well that was the intention.
I ended up back of head and camera watching because so many of my fellow passengers wanted to take a snap shot.
But a whale- a rare example of something actually worthy of the word iconic because of what it is, and what we have done to it- briefly leaving its natural element to catch air, before returning fathoms deep to hunt, is something much grander and more significant to my mind than anything that can be trapped in an instant by a camera lens.
St John seems to be trying to remind his readers that the details of Jesus’ birth are only a small part of a much bigger picture, which he then proceeds to paint, using words.
When it comes to art my tastes are very boring- certainly very un -Saatchi.
Two of my favourites painters are Vermeer and Paul Klee.
In a Vermeer you can see incredibly fine details; of fabric, of a floor, of a facial expression.
Klee, in contrast to Vermeer, dealt in abstract colours and shapes. In a well known remark he said Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.
St John spells out the conviction that Christ has made God visible- the measure and meaning of all things. A message of cosmic import and dimension.
The other gospels writers who say more about the Nativity would not disagree, but like Vermeer, point to God’s glory in the smaller things which are easily within our grasp- Vermeer’s profound faith is often side-lined by art critics!
Within the realm of family and politics and when troubling but inspiring experiences of the divine come calling.
To engage with the mystery of the Incarnation- God entering into the world thru Christ and glorifying the whole of human existence and shining a light into every corner- we perhaps need both sides; the everyday and intimate focus that we find in the Nativity stories and the grand vision of St John- to help us get closer to what Christmas means.