24th December 2021
The engine room of the universe
A Sermon for the First Eucharist of Christmas by Canon Robert TItley, Treasurer
Midnight Mass, 24 /25 December 2021
(Readings Luke 2: 1-20; John 1.1-14)
When something goes wrong you can find yourself becoming an overnight expert.
A car breaks down, and after the garage has finished with it you will be poorer – but perhaps wiser, and able to talk impressively about that previously unknown thing, the differential. An interest in sport can make you a minor authority on injuries, a broken metatarsal or a torn cruciate ligament. And now we all know about the R number, spike protein, and an increasing number of letters in the Greek alphabet. Let’s hope that what comes after omicron remains a mystery to most of us.
One reason we humans have made such a good living on this planet (so far) is that, when things go wrong, we have become really good at asking how and why. So, even amid all the ghastliness of these past two years we can celebrate the dazzling speed with which researchers – including at least one person from this cathedral – have got to grips with the virus.
And it’s not just when things go wrong. We are inquisitive animals, we like to take the back off and see how it works, even if ‘it’ is working perfectly. So, for some visitors to the cathedral, what they will remember even more than this glorious space is being in the roof void or the works yard, seeing what it takes to support a medieval lead roof or carve a piece of limestone.
One of the scenes I remember most vividly from the film Titanic is when (before the bad stuff starts to happen) Leo and Kate flit through the engine room: we glimpse the sweating crew and the hungry boilers, and we see what it takes to propel that vast metal hotel through the ocean. Much more interesting than the brandy swilling and card tables in first class.
And the engine room is where we have come tonight. When inquisitive shepherds look into the stable where Jesus is born, when we look up at that same scene above us or at our new crib figures below, then they and we are looking into what Rowan Williams, our last archbishop, has called the engine room of the universe. We are looking not at the mechanics, the processes of our world and the cosmos, we are looking deeper still, at the one who is the origin of it all, the source of (as someone wonderfully described it) ‘the fire in the equations’ that make the whole thing work.
Deep down, this is how God works; this is how God is: God giving himself away, in a small, fragile, shivering bundle of flesh, with no grandness, no glory (or rather, it’s glory, but not as we know it). Here we see that the universe owes its existence to a creator who doesn’t throw his weight around, who gives space for that very creation to exist, for you and me to be, and to be ourselves; and (we must add) space also for stuff to go wrong, space for viruses to mutate as well as space for our own remarkable talents for mucking things up. That seems to be the space that true freedom requires. And tonight we see God born into the middle of all of that, without protection or defence.
It is hard to believe that God really is like this, rather than the incompetent despot that many imagine. It was hard in Jesus’ day, too, which was why he needed not just to be born but to grow up, to show in adult word and deed how it is with God.
As Luke’s gospel unfolds in the pages after the scene we see tonight, Jesus will persistently give space to those who are bullied, pushed around or pushed aside, and say that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Some will find this so intolerable that they will get rid of him, and the life that began in a cowshed will end in a criminal’s death on a cross and then in a borrowed tomb. Except that it will not end there, for this apparently fragile life will prove to be indestructible.
This is how God works, by giving away the trappings of strength and significance as we understand them, in case we ever get the idea that the power of God is anything other than the power of love. Unstoppable love.
Tonight, though, is where it begins. The shepherds hear the voices of the angels urging them to Bethlehem, and there they look into the stable at the birth of it all.
And what angel has brought you here, to this Bethlehem of the heart? You may be one of the believers. You worked out long ago that this is the only place to be on this night of nights. Or your being here may feel almost – accidental. It may be that you heard a voice, from a family member or a friend in a bar – ‘Why not come along?’ And so you have. So have we all.
We gather from a variety of places and circumstances, with all the hopes and fears that we sang about in the carol – and they do indeed all meet here tonight, as we look at this one thing, this revealing in the birth of Jesus of the true face of God.
If something of Jesus can be born in you tonight, or in me, then so much can be different. Once you know that, deep down, this is how things are, that the heart of all things beats with the pulse of love, once you and I know we are loved with a love like this, that gives itself away, so generous, so indestructible, then we can receive strength to live in a world that that can still bully and push around. We can say, in the words of the Psalm writer,
In God I trust and will not fear,
for what can flesh do to me?
At the end of this service we shall hear from another of the gospels, as John gives his take on the birth of Jesus. He came, says John, and many didn’t accept him; but to those who did, he gave power to become children of God: that is, people who know, deep down, that they belong, that they are embraced, and loved beyond telling.
And now he comes to us. On this night he comes in a variety of ways: for one, in the bread of the Holy Communion; for another, in one phrase of a carol, a reading, a prayer; or perhaps it will be in a simple, silent moment that the wondrous gift is given. However he comes to us tonight, let us each pray that we may receive him.