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The First Eucharist of Christmas, Midnight Mass Sermon

The First Eucharist of Christmas, Midnight Mass Thursday 24 December 2020

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The First Eucharist of Christmas, Midnight Mass Sermon

Posted By : Anna Macham Tuesday 5th January 2021

The First Eucharist of Christmas, Midnight Mass Thursday 24 December 2020

Preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury. 

Isaiah 9: 2-7

Luke 2: 1-20

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”.

 

All the world. The scope of the Emperor’s ambition is colossal.  All the world is to be registered: all the world is to be checked, all the world is to be counted, all the world is to be catalogued.  It is the act of a man who believes he bestrides the world; it is an act of global control.

 

It pays no regard to the lives of ordinary men and women, who are summarily ordered to travel to their own towns.  Bethlehem is one hundred miles from Nazareth, several days’ journey.  Livelihoods have to be abandoned, dependent children minded, the sick and the elderly looked after.  No thought is given to the human cost.  The people of the Empire are moved like so many pieces on a chess board.

 

Finally, it is an act which, like many before and since, is conceived entirely in the halls of powerful men.  Three of them are mentioned in these twenty verses.  Augustus is the Emperor who orders the registration; Quirinius governs the province of Syria; the descendants of David are ordered to the ancestral town of David.  Augustus the Emperor; Quirinius the Governor; David the King: these are the names of the movers and shakers; these are the men who make history in their own image.

 

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”.

 

Yet even as the decree goes out, something else is happening.

 

In a stable in Bethlehem two of the Emperor’s subjects are gazing at their firstborn.  Augustus will never know who they are, or how his caprice has brought them to David’s town.  Yet Mary and Joseph have been told that the birth of the child heralds a new chapter in the story of their people and their God.  They have been told that through this birth a power infinitely mightier than the Emperor’s is breaking upon the world.  Secure in his palace, buttressed by the legions he commands, confident in the Pax Romana he has created, Augustus can have no idea that even as his wishes are being implemented the God of Heaven is asleep in a Bethlehem manger.

 

Asleep in a Bethlehem manger...  For the power that is breaking upon the world through this birth does not order the people of the Empire from their homes.  It does not send them on long, hungry journeys. It does not register their identities in order to boost its exchequer and bolster its security.  This divine power is among the people as one of the people.  It will never diminish them, disfigure them, or disown them.  Instead it will bring healing and wholeness to the sick and fearful; it will offer dignity to despised foreigners, voiceless children, hated tax-collectors and abused women; it will strive to reconcile all it encounters with God.

 

And while Augustus and Quirinius and David are named, others in these verses are not.  The anonymous shepherds are a sign to us that the Emperor’s writ did not run quite as widely as he believed it did.  For they are out in the fields.  They are watching their flocks, doing what shepherds do, a job no one else would want.  They have not travelled to their hometown because they probably have no hometown and no assets worth taxing.  But it is to them – to those outside the Emperor’s writ, to the overlooked and undervalued - that the angel speaks.

 

So St Luke deliberately places his story of one human family within the story of the whole human family.  The birth of Jesus exposes the damaged and damaging proclivity of that latter story to vaunting pride, carelessness of suffering, and wilful ignorance of the wisdom that comes from on high.  It is to heal that damaged and damaging proclivity that Christ comes among us in the intimacy of the manger, a subversive intimacy which turns both the world and our understanding of it on its head.

 

Augustus, Quirinius and David – or their descendants - are alive and well in the third decade of the twenty-first century, and while they have this year continued to inflict grievous hurt they have also used their political power to house the homeless; their celebrity power to feed at-risk pupils; and their intellectual power to develop Covid vaccines in record time.  In high-profile acts such as these, yes, but also in every loving gesture that has marked this year we witness the occasional harmony of the two stories that St Luke tells.  In these moments Christ’s story becomes our story; Christ’s healing of our pain and fear becomes our healing of others’ pain and fear.

 

For we are all Augustus, Quirinius and David.  Each of us has the power to think beyond the limits of our egos, beyond our own interests and our own concerns; each of us has the power to cherish, grace, and bless the lives of others; each of us has the power to look for God in every moment, to expect God in every moment, and to be surprised by God in every moment.

 

“Be born in us today” we would sing if we possibly could.  Be born in us, Lord Jesus Christ: let your spirit so fill us that our thoughts and words and deeds are your thoughts and words and deeds.  Our story has barely begun; may it be your story this Christmastide and always.  Amen.