Midnight Mass sermon 2023

St John’s Gospel is traditionally read at Midnight Mass – the Gospel that doesn’t mention the stories most familiar to us from Christmas carols and the crib scene just to my left. There are no visitations by angels, no journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and no stars to be followed or stables to be born in. Instead, we have the imagery of deep time and the contrast between light and darkness, before alluding to what the first disciples witnessed in Christ, in another cryptic phrase, worn thin by familiarity:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’

When I was a newly hatched priest, I was fortunate enough to have the late actor Tenniel Evans as a colleague. His advice for reading this bit of the Gospel of John makes more sense to me every year. He said, ‘Don’t read as if it is a straightforward factual statement or a piece of dogma from a theologian or a politician, but as St John thinking out loud, struggling to get his mind around what he had come to believe, along with his fellow Christians – a new mind-boggling take on the nature of things.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him’… a light to the world which would change everything and illuminate everything. And for John, this Word had changed everything and shone a light on existence.

But perhaps he wasn’t the only gospel writer to be thinking things through in this way.

Sometimes the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke are seen as the prosaic ones, which give us the details. St John gives us the great symphonic themes and the cosmic meaning. The others bring it all down to earth – to a corner of the Roman Empire made agonisingly real to us by the news at the moment – with their stories of a teenage girl, the birth of her son in a barn full of animals, mundane and exotic visitors, and a dash to Egypt to escape terror.

But, in fact, no one mentions a barn full of animals at all. St Matthew just says Jesus was born in a house, and St Luke says he was laid in a manger because there was no room in any inn in Bethlehem. The crib scene as we have it today evolved from a brainwave of St Francis of Assisi to bring home to the citizens of his city that the message of the Nativity was that God had come fully into the world – including their agricultural realities. It is not beyond conceiving that shepherds startled from their fields might have brought some livestock with them. But I doubt if a fact-check will help us here.

What the first Christians, including all the Gospel writers, were trying to put into words was their experience of meeting Christ, whether as a flesh and blood Galilean carpenter’s son (although the pedantic will throw in here that Joseph was probably more of an architect) or in their personal and communal spiritual lives – being inspired by his words and transformed by his teaching, drawn over and over again to ask what it means to love your neighbour as yourself and to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in a world with the same predilection for hatred, indifference and power and wealth accumulation as our own.

When the imagination of the artist adds scintillating feathers to the angel Gabriel, or a child adds a cat to the Nativity scene, or a poet asks and answers her own question,

‘What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him
Give my heart’

they are continuing a two-millennia-old conversation, working out how to put into words what happened and what continues to be at stake in a fractured world.

St John’s grand philosophy stabbed at the mystery in confidence and hope:

All things came into being through him, not one thing came into being… and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

A one-time resident of Roehampton – Gerard Manley Hopkins – imagined God’s presence with us continually pouring out from within all things – Christmas as a permanent state of affairs.

‘All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (Who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle , dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
                                                              Praise him.’

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