Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1: 1-14
So as Adam said in the garden, “It’s Christmas, Eve.” Welcome to the celebration which transforms our lives, the Birth of Jesus Christ. When I was reflecting on what had transformed my life in 2017, I came back (more or less) to the same answer- the love of family friends and community, which I have resolved never to take for granted - - oh, and of course, Netflix, through which I encountered The Crown and Westworld. Both have given me what I want to say this evening. 2017 has been a deeply challenging year So this transforming celebration gives me two aspects I'd like to speak about at this Midnight Mass – hope and light.
First, hope. A study published in the last few weeks in the medical journal The Lancet makes the claim that hope is an important factor in human well-being. A medical friend showed it to me with the words – “one day medicine will catch up with religion.” The birth of a child is, often, a sign of hope. The birth of this child, Jesus Christ, is the birth which gives hope to everyone, even though we are told that 1 in 5 of the British public have no idea that Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth. This birth changes everything, which is one of the main reasons why in Orthodox iconography the birth of Christ takes place in a cave not in a stable – as the cave symbolises the human heart. 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 true hope. 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 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 people need hope to 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 true hope.
And this immediately brings me to the second point “light.” AS the Gospel puts it “The light shines in the darkness.” 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. We continue in this Church to work with survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, as we have done since the early hours of that fateful summer morning. Undocumented survivors are a particularly powerful reminder of that radical insecurity with which we live, especially of we are part of the 65 million displaced people around the globe. If you haven’t yet seen it, do see Ai Wei Wei’s film Human Flow, which powerfully depicts this global migration. Survivors of violent and terrorist attacks, be that in Manchester, here in London, or in many other places in the world also are a powerful reminder of the darkness of radical insecurity. 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. Yet into this darkness comes light, and we are not without signs of hope. The U’s vote this week to reject the illegal American claim to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel alone was one of them, as was the BBC’s confession that its coverage of religion has until now, been distorted by its own secular fundamentalist agenda. Light comes to all of us in darkness through the birth of Christ.
I have spoken about hope and light, 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 2018 a real year of hope, where we work at demonstrating a more hopeful, and therefore Godlier, world order. It may even address issues uncomfortably closer to home. We can and will contribute to the building up of a less fragmented Borough. We are already doing this, as we bring people together who would not normally be seen listening to each other. Violence and social fragmentation are the lot of many people on the streets of London, which this year saw too many teenage deaths from stabbings. Working 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 of 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 “Behold, I make all things new” May this continue to be true for all of us, and may 2018 be for our whole world an annus mirabilis, a year of grace and wonders through the birth of Jesus who is hope and light.