A sermon preached on Christmas Day, Sunday 25 December by The Very Revd June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury.
Hebrews 1 v 1-4
John 1 v 1-14
Vlogmas. Vlog-mas. That’s the name of the video blogs which some of our staff in the Cathedral have been posting on-line every day through December, like an Advent calendar showing how the Cathedral operates in the run up to Christmas. And when I finish this sermon the final video will be posted which will be about what Christmas means to us.
Amber, our marketing assistant who fronts Vlogmas with a cheery ‘Hi guys’ went round her colleagues after a staff Christmas party asking them to say in one word what Christmas means to them. If you were only allowed one word what would your one word be? She got ‘family’, ‘laughter’, ‘chill out’, ‘jumpers’, ‘spices’, ‘bacon sandwiches’, ‘bucks fizz’ and many more. It might not surprise you to know that when she asked me I offered ‘Jesus’. It’s the job of the Dean to keep us focused after all. If you want to watch any of the 25 days of Vlogmas they’re on the home page of Salisbury Cathedral website. So if you wonder how we got that Christmas tree up and decorated it’s all there.
Today God has spoken to us by a single word and that ‘Word become flesh’ is his Son.
2016 has been a year of many words. Some of them have left us speechless.
Take for instance the many words of farewell. In this year we’ve lost people who’ve long been familiar to us, who’ve inspired and entertained us and whose words we remember – Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Alan Rickman (to my children’s disbelief I always lusted after Alan Rickman), Leonard Cohen, Ronnie Corbett, Prince. The list is long. And it may be that you’ve said words of farewell to people more intimate to you this year. Goodbyes are hard words, and they abide in our soul especially at Christmastime.
There have also been words of change and division. Yes No Leave Remain. It feels as if we’ve become more divided on opinions and issues this year, be that immigration or identity. 2016 has had its revolutionary moments when words have become contested and fierce. The economic gap between winners and losers in a world of globalisation stopped being a matter for the language of economists and entered the life of our mainstream politics and culture. Inequality and injustices began to show bitter fruit such as the treatment of black suspects which produced the campaign Black Lives Matter. Angry words, and there was a cry for a type of politics willing to respond to such grievances.
Words of cruelty also seemed to abound in this year. From Syria to Nice to Berlin there have been a trail of savage assaults. Strategies which have besieged, starved or mown down the young and innocent. Humanitarian workers and medical personnel have been legitimate targets. Huge migrations and horrible violations of international law have brought forth very few words of shame. And closer to home the way we speak words to each other seems to have become coarse and crude. Public voices casually and repeatedly broke the taboos of good behaviour and the language decency.
Words themselves seem to have become less trustworthy this year. Is it the case that everyone has their own version of the truth, their own way of interpreting facts? Should we believe, as one American journalist said, that “There’s no such thing unfortunately anymore as facts.
With that experience of how words have operated for us this year we come to Christmas Day and to the Christian conviction that God has spoken to us in the Word made flesh. God’s Word and deed was to share human life and by sharing it to change it. That’s because God’s Word is a word of dissent to what we are prone to believe and the way we are prone to behave. Today’s word, symbolised by this crib scene and the star which appears above it, is indeed Jesus – that God is with us. If we want fulfilment of life, to live a good life then the defining word cannot be money and power. There is a given truth. There is a word more powerful than anything which rises from our animal spirits.
Last weekend I officiated at a wedding here in the Cathedral. The first words in the Church of England wedding service are quite often those written by the same St John who describes the Christmas story as the Word made flesh.
“God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.”
And in this particular wedding service the couple had then chosen a charming reading which began like this:
“As two lovers sat quietly, alone for a while,
Then he turned and said, with a casual air, (Though he blushed from his toes to the tips of his hair)
‘I think I’d quite like to get married to you.’
‘Well then’, she said, ‘well, there’s a thought but what if we can’t vow to be all that we ought?’”
Even on a wedding day, even on Christmas Day when kindliness is in the air, we can’t vow to be all that we ought. The words of vows, pledging to be our very best soon meet the limitations of our human life. 2016 has shown us vividly how fragile and fickle and harsh human life can be. An MP going about her constituency business in Yorkshire has her life snuffed out and her young children made motherless by an instant of hatred. It’s fragile because we can’t be all that we ought. We fail ourselves. We fail those we love.
Which is why the Word made flesh living among us, showing us what the divine planted in human frailty would look like, not only shares our life but offers to change it. He comes to us as love and offers to change us through the power of love: of being loved, of finding love, of acting out of love, of striving for the justice which is the manifestation of love in society and between nations, of using love as our absolute measure of truth so that qualities which we trust will grow strong – mercy, forgiveness, compassion.
To return to Vlogmas and the question Amber asked ‘What does Christmas mean to you?’ I think I now wish someone, perhaps me, had said ‘Love’. Christmas is about the triumph of love. When the world becomes coarse and cruel and neglects kindness and dignity the Christmas crib reminds us everyone is lovingly precious to God; that history is full of people whose influence still goes on because they acted out of love.
There are times we can’t fix the world but we can claim the fact – and here today we celebrate that it is a sacred fact – that light is stronger than darkness, that love is better than hate, that Christ came to us to show us the vulnerability and the great triumph of love.
‘What does Christmas mean to you?’ It means Love.