Lord Jesus, light of the world,
born in David’s city of Bethlehem,
born like him to be a king,
be born in our hearts this Christmastide,
be King of our lives today. Amen.
We only get this confluence of days once every seven years or so; less often actually because of the mischievous intervention of leap years into the equation. The fourth Sunday of Advent coinciding with Christmas Eve. Saves a fortune in candles, because the candle we have just lit will only burn today, before it is replaced with a white one for Christmas, so that eases the Dean’s verger’s budget at least.
And of course we’re never going to get huge crowds in church for the morning services when Christmas Eve is Sunday, because you can have too much church, even precentors recognise that!
But here, more than ever, we find ourselves standing on the threshold. Waiting. Waiting for Christmas, waiting with Mary, with Joseph, for this life changing event which has been promised through mysterious angelic contact, in Joseph’s case, a dream rather than the apparently waking experience of Mary. But in both cases something quite inexplicable, and in all likelihood utterly frightening.
There’s a thing doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment, I don’t know whether you have seen it, it is a list of cathedral nativities, a fairly tongue in cheek one, and we are listed in it. When they get to us they simply say “Salisbury seem to have left up their Halloween set up”!
This is of course a reference to our Angels, which, to be fair, are pretty terrifying. But that is, of course, the point. There was nothing about the experience of the holy family which would have felt safe, or in control, or domesticated. Indeed, when we get to tonight and hear again the story of the Shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, we will be reminded, in the words of the carol, that “mighty dread had seized their troubled minds.”
What we are about to remember, what we are about to step into the narrative of, to experience again ritually, liturgically, is the absolutely pivotal moment in history. It is the moment that divinity, that God, the immortal, invisible, he whose robe is the sky, and whose chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form, stoops to embrace his creation, enters into the finite and bruisable world of matter and stuff, of hopes and tears and dreams, and is born as one of us.
And of course we don’t notice. No one much noticed. The attention was focused elsewhere. At Herod’s palace, at the temple, or wherever. Not at Bethlehem. Not a stable. Who noticed? Well Mary obviously, and Joseph. In confusion, and fear, in someone else’s garage as it were. Some shepherds, again seized with mighty dread. And if you believe the gorgeous but incredible rural tradition, perhaps the cattle who still, at least according to Thomas Hardy, drop to their knees at midnight on Christmas Eve in honour of the master who once shared their strawy home.
But this is precisely how grace works. It comes to us, even though we are looking in the wrong direction. We are always looking in the wrong direction. We are looking, quite understandably, at ourselves, or at one another. We are looking at our lives, we are wondering how we are to move forward, how we are to succeed, or survive, or start again. We are infinitely distracted. And yet grace comes anyway. In fact, grace comes because of all of that.
And that is the promise of Christmas Eve. And, actually, the promise of the fourth Sunday of Advent. It is the promise that we don’t have to force ourselves through an agonising process of trying to relate on the one hand this gorgeous, twinkly image of Christmas that surrounds us today in Christmas cards, in popular music, and even in our Christmas crib right here - we don’t have to reconcile that image with the great litany of despair and fear that describes the contents of the 6 o’clock news this morning, with its narrative of greed, hate, violence, and above all the besetting sin of pride.
And if all that seems too large-scale, the truth is no less true at the level of our own fears and anxieties. You know so many people struggle at Christmas because they feel the tension between the jollity and good cheer that they are supposed to be feeling, and what they’re actually feeling, which is very often not like that at all. We don’t stop fearing at Christmas. We don’t stop mourning at Christmas. We don’t stop aching at Christmas. but we feel like we have to pretend that we are not feeling those things. We feel like we have to present ourselves as grinaholic smile monsters from candy cane Hill.
But the truth is absolutely the opposite of that. The truth is that into the fear, into the loneliness, into the darkness comes Christ. “Do not be afraid Mary, for you found favour with God”. What, me? I’m not even married. How can this work? How can this possibly work? Well, because “nothing will be impossible with God.” Nothing will be impossible with God.
So into the world comes Christ, not in triumph like in the last verse of lo he comes with clouds descending, but silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. King David didn’t get it either. He wanted to build God a palace. But what God wants is a tent. A Tabernacle. “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, I have been with you wherever you went.”
God comes into a human being, into the womb of blessed Mary the God bearer, patron of this Cathedral, reminding us always that we’re not supposed to be ready, we’re not supposed to be finished, we are supposed to say “how can this be?” How is it possible that God would come to me, I’m too weak, I’m too sad, I’m too sinful, I’m too tired and too lazy. But that’s only half the conversation. We are supposed, also, to be alert enough to try to hear the response “I have been with you wherever you went”, for “nothing will be impossible with God.”
Words from the Iona community:
When the world was dark
and the city was quiet,
You crept in beside us.
And no one knew.
Only the few
who dared to believe
that God might do something different.
Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?
Will you come into the darkness of tonight's world;
not the friendly darkness
as when sleep rescues us from tiredness,
but the fearful darkness,
in which people have stopped believing
that war will end
or that food will come
or that a government will change
or that the Church cares?
Will you come into that darkness
and do something different
to save your people from death and despair?
Will you come into the quietness of this town,
not the friendly quietness
as when lovers hold hands,
but the fearful silence when
the phone has not rung
the letter has not come,
the friendly voice no longer speaks,
the doctor's face says it all?
Will you come into that darkness,
and do something different,
not to distract, but to embrace your people?
And will you come into the dark corners
and the quiet places of our lives?
We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden
or want to be,
but because the fullness our lives long for
depends upon us being as open and vulnerable to you
as you were to us,
when you came,
and trusting human hands
to hold their maker.
Will you come into our lives,
if we open them to you
and do something different?
When the world was dark
and the city was quiet
You crept in beside us.
Do the same this Christmas, Lord.
Do the same this Christmas.