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 2018, one was the NHS without which I would not be here this evening, and secondly this community which constantly both challenges and energises me. Having a near death experience is sobering and teaches us to realise what is really valuable – and for me 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, and Artificial Intelligence. 2018 has been a deeply challenging year, but at the end of it, this transforming celebration gives me the two aspects of Christmas I'd like to speak about at this Midnight Mass, and both relate to peace – the Pax Romana and the Pax Christi.
The Pax Romana. The Christmas stories that we read about in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and the prologue to John’s Gospel are specific contradictions to the idea of the Pax Romana. They assert boldly and clearly that it is not Caesar Augustus’ who is Prince of Peace and Lord of All but rather Jesus the Christ. Not peace through putting the army on standby and stockpiling medicine but rather peace through freedom, equality and justice, through respect for the dignity and value of every human being. There are of course some very real parallels with our own time. We too live under a kind of Pax Romana. The market led approaches to peace we have seen over the last few generations no longer provide us with quite the peace we need however. This market-shaped peace has had a particular way of understanding what it is to be human. First that we are individuals complete of ourselves where we emerge into a world which we manipulate so as to maximise our own personal happiness: our relationships, the responsibilities they give us, and the way they shape us are all secondary. Second that we are simply and inherently competitive, and that we will as a matter of instinct always pursue our own interests. And further, in some miraculous way, it is purported that this endless pursuit of self-interest will lead to the common good. There is no room here to acknowledge that we are also naturally cooperative and can be sublimely selfless.
On the one hand this makes us consumers seeking more and more ‘things’ to make us happy and on the other we become commodities, useful only in so far as we are able to consume. Of course markets and prosperity are important but God knows that we need an alternative to save us from what can only be described as a wasteland. What then in our own time does Christian faith have to offer? What is our alternative story?
Here we come to the Pax Christi- the Peace of Christ. What is this? The Pax Christi starts from here - 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. Some of the recent series on Netflix have helped me realise this – they pose 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.” 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. Here is the Pax Christi - we are a part of God, because God becomes part of us.
This is the Pax Christi and answers 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 2019 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. 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, and the deaths of over 600 homeless people. Here, we build the new humanity. 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, the Pax Christi.
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 one you want to forget 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, and as Christ is born in the cave of my heart, that most unchangeable of things – you and me – is changed. We are transformed. May this continue to be true for all of us, and may 2019 be for our whole world a year of grace and wonders through the birth of Jesus who brings the Pax Christi – the Peace of Christ.