Midnight Mass of the Nativity 2016
Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1: 1-14
Welcome to the celebration which transforms our lives, the Birth of Jesus Christ. When I was reflecting on what had transformed my life in 2016, I came back (more or less) to the same answer- the love of family and friends, which I have resolved never to take for granted - - oh, and of course, through which I encountered The Crown and Westworld. Both have given me what I want to say this evening. 2016 has been a deeply challenging year So this transforming celebration gives me two aspects I'd like to speak about at this Midnight Mass – word and flesh.
First, word. We heard these words in the Gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” The words of course are a deliberate echo of the first narrative of creation in the Book Genesis, which starts “In the beginning” Here, the astonishing claim is being made that creation is being remade. John is saying the world is now being re-created and at the same time you are being recreated. I am being recreated. We become, through this birth, a new humanity. West world has helped me realise this. The series tells the story of robots who are created in human image. They look and sound exactly like humans, but are made in a factory and are robots. This really represents the growth of AI or artificial intelligence, and, though presented in Sci Fi form, is not far from the truth and from reality. The series poses, in sharp relief, the question which many say will be the only question for the 21st century – what makes the human person? What makes you and me human? The answer lies in what we celebrate today – God unites himself to humanity, so that humanity may continue its journey towards God – as T S Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” This is the true word. And in a year which has seen what many call the death of politics and the beginning of the era of post-truth politics we desperately need this. I take a simple example from this rapidly growing church. People feel lost through the post-truth era in which we now live, and see the failure of the institutions which surround us – the EU, Parliament, especially in its abdication of the responsibility to govern, the United Kingdom itself, all accompanied by the rise of the far right, the rise of social fragmentation and fanatical extremism, and the collapse of the world order as we have known it since the end of the Second World War. A scenario, as the Prince of Wales pointed out this week, which has frightening similarities, in Europe, with the 1930’s. especially with the rise of xenophobic nationalism and the rejection of the liberal ascendancy which has been taken for granted until now. In this scenario, people feel lost and bewildered, so it is no surprise that we see a return to the true word which will both sustain and energise. As a little microcosm we are witnessing the rapid growth of this church, fuelled of course by immigration which brings the wholly positive benefits of people who are far more confident in articulating their faith. So over the past decade we have seen a fourfold increase in the numbers of people regularly attending this church. This year we saw the largest attendance on record at our Carol Service. So this brings me to the first part of the answer as to what makes us fully human- we are a part of God, because god becomes part of us. This is the true word.
And this immediately brings me to the second point “ The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God becomes fully human. And what characterises our human condition has been described as radical insecurity. The word used in Greek for dwelt among us can be equally translated into English as “ pitched his tent among us.” Here, into the world of radical insecurity comes God. This too make us fully human. And we need no reminders of this. This year has seen Europe trying to respond appropriately to the desperate needs of refugees and asylum seekers escaping the killing fields of Syria, Iraq, and other places, often placing themselves at the mercy of people traffickers and dying tragically in the Mediterranean, described recently by Pope Francis as the sea of death. Our Junior Church display at the back of the church shows these images. And this is not just a European issue. The most recent estimates are that 65 million people are on the move globally, forced out of their homes by war, violence, poverty, and the effects of global warming. This is true humanity, and for all the props we may put around ourselves in terms of material possessions, this is also our narrative. The trafficked people in this church, together with a good number asylum seekers and refugees remind us powerfully that their lot is our lot. We are bound together through our shared humanity.
I have spoken about word and flesh, and asked the question “ What makes us human?” The second century church Father Irenaeus wrote this” The Glory of God is a human being – fully alive.” What we celebrate tonight makes us fully alive – in fact buzzing with life, as through we had had several Red Bulls for breakfast. And we can and will do our part in making 2017 a real year of hope, where we work at demonstrating a more hopeful, and therefore more Godly, world order. It may even address issues uncomfortably closer to home. A survey by the Primary Care Trust of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea confirms the fact that two Wards of the Borough situated right next to each other have the UK’s widest gap in life expectancy. This gap, currently off 10 years, widens every year. I do not need to list the obvious social consequences of this huge disparity living side by side. Violence and social fragmentation are the lot of too many people on the streets of London, which this year saw too many teenage deaths from stabbingsWorking closely with the Probation Service, as we do in this church, I see new hope emerging all the time out of lives seemingly wrecked. When I visited someone in Wormwood Scrubs, he said to me, “ I’m at rock bottom now, and life can only get better.” That’s the job of all os us, the new humanity.
This Midnight Mass is often a poignant time of year for individuals. We all bring our own stories to this celebration, and for most people these stories are mixed- some good, some bad, some achievements, some failures, some foolishnesses, some regrets. So whether this year past has been for you an annus horibilis, or whether it’s been a good year, may you know that you yourself are the glory of God, as a human being, fully alive. . The birth of Jesus Christ changes everything, as we live it year by year. It can even change that most unchangeable of realities, you and me. To use words of John our Patron set for this Midnight Mass of the Nativity, “Behold, I make all things new” May this continue to be true for all of us, and may 2017 be for our whole world an annus mirabilis, a year of grace and wonders.
Freshness leads to Hope. The year ahead could be a particularly significant and hopeful one for the whole of our world. New and hopeful starts abound- not least through the climate change agreement reached in Paris. A new start for the millions of people displaced by war and violence, and now living as refugees and migrants. In this Borough, I am proud of the role of the churches, St John's in particular, in getting ready to welcome the fifty most vulnerable refugees from Syria who we will be welcoming on 2016. The Filipino Chaplaincy in this church continues to amaze me by its energy and hope, symbolised for me by our new friendship with the X Factor Filipina girl band 4th Impact. We will be unveiling big plans for that community in 2016, and their role as key partners in the Gospel in doing our pastoral work with people, where we will see new energy and initiatives in the year ahead. This irrepressible energy is also symbolised for me By The Zimmers, a group of 50 Jewish pensioners with a combined age of 3,700. Their CD, Lust for Life contains such gems as Fight for your Right to Party. Why speak about this? Because, they are justsmall examples of the spirit of hope which religious faith will bring to every situation. The Bishop of London has written about this “ It is hope” he writes,” which can give a meaning to life and history and which gives us the courage to continue on our way into the future together.”