Midnight Communion, Christmas Eve 2016
St John the Baptist, Guilden Sutton
Isaiah 52.7-10 Hebrews 1.1-4 John 1.1-14
‘Silent night’ is regularly voted to be the nation’s favourite carol. The melody has a simple beauty and combined with the words a sense of stillness and rest is created. Or to put it another way, not a lot is happening. Light is shining and angels are singing, but at the centre is pure calm – the ideal baby, fast asleep.
Perhaps that is part of its appeal. In the middle of hectic lives it is a sign of those moments when we get some respite and relaxation before the baby awakes (whatever the baby may be for us) and the normal demands of life resume.
But is that really the sum total of the glad tidings of great joy this Christmas? Thank God we get a break in the middle of winter. A Christmas which doesn’t actually change anything but just provides a pause, like when the British and German forces ceased fire to play football together on 25th December 1914.
We heard Isaiah promise something different: ‘The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations’. That appears to be an image of action, a rolling up of the sleeves, a flexing of the muscles, then getting involved to sort out the mess in the world. If only God could intervene like that at Christmas wouldn’t it be more helpful than a static nativity scene?
We tend to like intervention and we wish we could do it better – more efficiently and more clinically. We’re at the end of a year when the report of the Iraq Inquiry has at last been published, alerting us to the danger of being too ready to intervene, too ill-informed, too unprepared. But it has also been a year of watching as thousands are killed in Syria and of wondering why no-one is able or willing to go in and stop it.
If only we had comprehensive real-time intelligence, surgically precise instruments and supernatural foresight. Wouldn’t the perfect strategy then be possible? And isn’t that what the bare, holy arm of the Lord ought to be able to plan and execute?
Sometimes the Christmas story is told in ways which sound a bit like this. God who up until now had been in heaven finally comes down to earth. He sets in motion his rescue plan. He breaks in and gets involved.
The limitation of this kind of language is the suggestion that before the incarnation God had been holding himself back. He had kept himself to himself. He hadn’t been as outgoing as he could have been.
John begins his Gospel by contradicting exactly this. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. God expresses himself, and when he speaks it just pours out. And what pours out is the whole infinite fullness which is God. It is God’s nature and life and being, as God, even before we think about the world, to give himself. He holds nothing back. He places his life into the hands of another, and as that other he gives back in return. He is the giver, the gift and the giving itself, all at once.
It’s heady stuff. And it’s no wonder, if that is what God is like, that it doesn’t all stop at God. He creates a world, a universe and more. It’s a world which is not God, and yet a world so infused with the poured out Word, so full of God, that you can’t draw a line where God ends and where the world begins.
The world has never had a shortage of God. What it has lacked is the will to give itself away in return. That’s why in carol services we speak of the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience. God has been patiently present, heard in many and various ways, as the writer to the Hebrews says, kindling faith, drawing a people out of themselves towards love of God and of neighbour.
So after many centuries, a young woman responds with the same kind of self-giving speech with which she is addressed, and says, ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. And because of this, the world opens up just enough to allow the birth of a child whose whole being and life is that same self-giving by which the world is made. The Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.
God hasn’t intervened. He hasn’t interrupted any order or suspended any laws. Of course the incarnation is a miracle, but the world was always such that this was its potential. It is God’s world, and he is constantly given to it, so within the regularity and order we know there is always the possibility of the surprising and new. There is always a straining towards a freer order, towards a world which more fully responds with God’s life.
The birth of the Son of God is not an alien or superhuman intrusion. It is a flowering of creation, an organic breakthrough. ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’
This child is one of us, not more than human, and not less. This is a humanity held in being by God’s poured out speech, just as ours is. But at the same time, it is a humanity free to pour itself out in return, a humanity full of grace and truth.
So Jesus is not just one of us, he is one for us, as no-one else has ever been for us. This is God’s kind of life, a life which places itself into the hands of the other. John therefore goes on to say ‘from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’.
Grace opening up grace. That is both the life of God and the deep logic of this world. Mary’s grace opens her womb to the incarnation, and Jesus’ full and perfect sacrifice opens the world so that ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’. So that all who receive him are given power to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature, opened up to be a people who together grow in grace.
The world doesn’t lack God’s presence, it lacks ours. It doesn’t need divine intervention, it needs our human attention. Our government and others have to make decisions about whether to step into places like Syria but real lasting peace is only ever going to come through organic, grassroots engagement between communities and nations at all levels; people paying attention to each other and giving of themselves to each other.
After the birth at least, the nativity of our Lord can indeed be presented as a silent night where nothing is happening. The action being talked about in the region might rather have been the census, the counting of heads, the latest strategizing of the authorities. All that is now a non-event.
Yes, such plans and strategies are part of life, even part of the Church, but the coming of the kingdom of God is not a plan overlaid on the world; it is the outworking of God’s constant presence to all things from the beginning – the Word, who gives the deepest truth and rationality to every element of creation.
Similarly, the points where eternally significant growth happens tonight are not likely to be even noticed, let alone make the news: someone stopped in their tracks and brought to their knees in prayer for the first time; a life risked by attending to the distressed in a war zone; a costly word of forgiveness after years of family division. People paying attention, right where they are.
Being attentive, present and still is where we begin, and it is the Church’s first task. The good news of that silent night is that for the first time a human being was fully present to the world. A baby, laid in a manger, going nowhere, settled down by the weight of the full glory of God.