Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Wednesday, 24th December
“The Word became flesh and lived among us” John 1:14
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
The Oxen by Thomas Hardy.
I used to love the stories by Thomas Hardy when I was a kid, Hardy was from Dorset, the county neighbouring my home county of Somerset; the people in his stories spoke with the same West Country accent with which I grew up.
Thomas Hardy was a man of his times. A man who lived through years when the scientific view of the world was taking over; a time when all the stories and the legends of the past were being seen as no more than stories and legends. He loves the old traditions, the idea that the animals would kneel at midnight on Christmas being one of them. He loves the idea that he might go down the barton in the gloom of a December night and find the animals kneeling down to celebrate the birth of Jesus—but he doesn’t believe it could be so.
Aren’t most of us like Thomas Hardy?
We love the stories; we love the idea that they could be true; but we don’t believe them. And it’s not just the old traditions, it’s the Christmas story itself: angels and shepherds are nice on Christmas cards, but, hand on heart, how many of us believe in them in Dublin on 24th December 2008?
Ask people what things are real in their lives, and what would you get? Their homes, their families, their jobs, their community, their country: these are the things we believe in now. The things we can see; the things we can hold; the things that are present. We don’t believe in what we cannot see, what we cannot test.
What’s real? Our car in the car park; the house we are going home to after this service; the presents we will unwrap in the morning; the Christmas dinner on the table; the friends with whom we will share a glass; the job we will go back to in the New Year (or the job that we don’t have); the bills coming at the end of the month. These are the real things for us. Angels and shepherds? They are like something from a poem.
But we do believe in realities that we cannot explain. We cannot explain love, yet we know it is there. We cannot explain why some piece of music or some piece of art can change the whole way that we feel inside, but we know that it happens. We cannot explain friendship and loyalty, but when are mates are in trouble, we know we will be there for them.
I met a military padre last year who had just come home from Iraq. “What will my men die for?” he asked. They will not die for queen or country; they will not die for words like ‘freedom’; they will certainly not die for any politician. I’ll tell you what they’ll die for. They’ll die for their mates”.
We all believe in things we cannot understand, that we cannot explain, so is it so hard to believe in angels and shepherds?
Is it so hard to admit that there are things out there that we cannot explain? Is it so hard to say there are parts of my life where no rational, scientific, explanation based on the things of this world is possible?
We accept so many things on faith. Should anyone ask us why we love the person we live with, or why we play the music we do, or why we have our house painted a particular colour, or why we follow a particular sport; we would look at them as if they were slightly mad. We just do, and there’s nothing else to say on the matter.
Would it be so hard to accept God on similar terms? Would it be so hard to say that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we cannot explain, but we believe that God is there present in the middle of it? Would it be so hard to believe that to share our lives, to know what being human is really like, this God became a child in a little country at the crossroads of the world? Would it be so hard to believe that God would know what it was like to be homeless, to live in poverty, to be a refugee?
Would it be so hard to believe? Perhaps not.
But, be warned, to believe is also dangerous, to believe means being open to changing from the people we are, into the people God would have us to be. Perhaps it is safer to be like Thomas Hardy, to keep it all as a nice tradition, as a nice story.
Yet, once we think thoughts, it is hard to unthink them. Once we have accepted God is there, it is hard to pretend he is not.
John Betjeman asks us in his poem Christmas:
And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
Is it true?
Each of us can only answer that question for ourselves.
Do we believe in the angels and the shepherds?
Do we believe that God took on human flesh and lived among us?