Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Isaiah 9: 1-3a
Luke 2: 1-7
I wonder if you know that Christmas carols weren’t originally songs to be sung like we’re doing this afternoon but they were folk dances. The one which illustrates this best is a carol I’ve never sung in church but appears all over the place at Christmas. Indeed my children have to put up with me humming this whilst I put up decorations or stuff the turkey.
Deck the hall with boughs of holly Fa – lalalalalala
Tis the season to be jolly Fa – lalalalalala
And then it goes on
Strike the harp and join the chorus
Follow me in merry measure (there you are: measure is an old version of ‘dance’ Follow me in merry dance)
While I tell of Christmas treasure
Fa – lalalalalala.
So the invitation in carols originally was for us to dance because as we all know Christmas is the ‘season to be jolly’.
Christmas is a season of jollity, especially for those families with small children who still believe in Father Christmas and who find the world of tinsel and anticipation and of Baby Jesus magical.
For all of us Christmas is a season of jollity, when things are bright and hopes are brave. When shops are full of seasonal products and the compulsion is to celebrate: to over-indulge, to party and we try hard to show Bob Cratchit’s generosity of outlook rather than Ebenezer Scrooge’s meanness.
It’s just like what we expect from a child’s birth – Christmas is a season of jollity, a time of expected joy and gladness.
And yet, those of you associated with the Lullaby Trust are experts in sorrow, whether it’s your own loss or the pain caused to those you love and care for, or simply the bewilderment of deaths which are deeply unkind. You are experts in sorrow because you’ve mapped the landscape of the unexpected death of children. You know every detail of what happens. If it’s your child that’s been taken you will’ve explored all possible avenues of that experience, including the question ‘why?’.
I was a Chaplain at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the 1980s and it was the most frequent conversation I had with parents as they absorbed a diagnosis of their child’s failing health. Once they’d understood the science of what was happening to their little one, then came the question which needs faith even to ask it. Why is this happening? What does it mean? How can I make sense of it? You may not always achieve answers which satisfy your heart and soul but you do become accustomed to living with the sorrow of the questions. You become well-acquainted with that sorrow.
This Cathedral would’ve always responded positively to the Lullaby Trust’s request to host a Carol Service here but it has special significance for us this year as one of the families in our own congregation lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome not very long ago. I had baptised baby Olivia on a gloriously happy Sunday morning, never dreaming that a few weeks later I would be burying her in our small graveyard just by the side of our blue window. What we now know as a community will be familiar territory to some of you and your families. It’s the different elements which remain long after the funeral is over.
There’s a continuing and aching sense of so many things lost with that one small life.
What would she have been like had she grown? Would she have been shy, pretty, musical, intelligent, comical, affectionate? And how would she have changed our lives, the dynamics of her home? Not only Olivia is lost to us and our pleasure at watching her grow but everything we attach to her and all the impact she would’ve made.
Then sorrow also shows itself in our continuing sense of responsibility
There’s something very particular which surfaces in us when our children are in danger. We’re meant to protect them. It’s the thing Dads have said to me so many times: I was meant to be there for them. We live with the persistent question: What did we do wrong? What could we have done differently? We can be cruel to ourselves.
And we are also experts in sorrow because through times like these life becomes cruel.
No longer does the daily life we journey look innocent to us. Out of the blue, in the most punishing way and at a time when we were filled with love and delight, life has been wickedly cruel. We don’t just have to adjust and cope but our sense of the world is altered.
Each of us has our own story and no two are the same, but in this season of jollity we come together this afternoon to recognise that sorrow is a deep and enduring part of who we are and it will ever be thus. Losing love, losing a child is part of who we are.
But it isn’t everything we recognise here today. Sorrow isn’t our only companion. Loss isn’t our only reality. Because Christmas is more than just a season for jollity. We know that because it has a birth at its very heart. I’m sorry our crib isn’t constructed in time for today but when it arrives it is there to say just that. At the focal point of everything we make of Christmas is the birth of a child, of God coming into our world and sharing in the pain and messiness of human experience. As we ourselves know from childbirth there is pain, there is blood and mess. A mother gives her body to bring new birth to life. That body is stretched and torn. That relationship is born in separation, the need to detach from the one who will go their own way.
But birth is so much more than anguish and labour; and this miraculous birth especially.
Right there, in the indignity of the stable, in the labour of Mary, in the anxiety of Joseph, in the life of Jesus which we remember was cut short by violence – in all that human sorrow God shares our existence. We’re not alone in the cruelties of this world. We’re not abandoned to sorrow. We are loved.
‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly’ bids us celebrate the festival of Christmas. You know that some do that against the background of all that undermines their joy and happiness.
‘Strike the harp and join the chorus: Follow me in merry measure: While I tell of Christmas treasure’
We pray for you, that you will know the kind of Christmas which will replenish your hope and deepen your faith, that you may know God’s love for you and those you love - for that’s real Christmas treasure.