Midnight Mass Sermon - 24 December 2020

Christmas Eve
Hebrews 1:1–4; John 1:1–14
The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, The Archdeacon of Oxford

Lord Jesus, Light of the world: we ask that you would illuminate our hearts, enlighten our minds and be a lantern for our paths, that we may reveal your glory for others. Amen.

It was a Precentor’s nightmare – when the organ of the church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg was declared unusable on Christmas Eve 1818. The organist, Franz Grube, hastily composed a tune to a poem written by the young priest, Joseph Mohr. How lovely it was to hear the resulting, beautiful melody of Stille Nacht sung by our Cathedral Consort this eve. I was recounting this story on Christmas Eve a few years back – it was an open-air carol service amongst servicemen and women of different nationalities in Afghanistan. Just as I commented on the evocative words ‘All is calm, all is bright,’ a coalition jet started its engines for a mission to assist troops in contact. It was a jarring note, but it also served to highlight the gritty reality of Jesus’ own mission: ‘a light that shines in the darkness’.

Our makeshift choir and band on that occasion was reduced by a call for the aeromedical team. A young British marine had become a triple amputee through triggering an improvised explosive device and was to be flown home in an induced coma – a seemingly hopeless situation. In praying for him and the medical team, I wondered what sort of life he might have - if he survived. Later at 3am I sat with a soldier who had just been told that his father had died; he was travelling home on the same flight. At such dark times of suffering and loss, of moral complexities and questions of ‘why’, when we are called to journey with others in their pain, it is an extraordinary comfort to know ‘that the darkness has not overcome the light.’ I was delighted to learn recently that the RM, Mark Ormrod, went on to win 4 Gold Medals at the Invictus Games in 2018 and was awarded an MBE this year for services to charity.

Whether physically here in Christ Church Cathedral or perhaps joining on livestream, let us hear again St John’s acclamation: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ I guess we all recognise this as a Christmas like none other – although presumably plague and civil war in Oxford were quite challenging in their day. Each of us has faced disruption to our rhythm of work or family life, but for those who have experienced the loss of loved ones, it is a particularly hard time. Many have also suffered threat to livelihood and the dislocation of social interaction. It’s a year when global poverty has been accentuated, racial injustice exposed and inequalities of health and education highlighted. Our hearts cry out: for those who are bereaved, those who fear for their futures, those most vulnerable not just to the pandemic but to its social and economic consequences.

In the darkness this year we have still enjoyed glimmers of light, shining in the faces of our health and caring professionals, the dedication of teachers and multiple support staff, the loving service of churches and other faith groups in food deliveries and neighbourhood support. We will need all this and more in 2021, as individuals, as a society praying for effective vaccines and as a UK working to establish a new international identity. For humanity made in his image, these acts of kindness, examples of sacrificial service, are God-given signs of his image within us, his continued presence amongst us and the rich potential of community in his name.

Yet the challenge to us is to go beyond the signs to the reality: the need of humanity is too great and the gift of God in Jesus too important, to satisfy just a cursory acknowledgement. As our first reading describes, Jesus is nothing less than the creator, saviour and sustainer of life. As ‘the Word made Flesh’, he brings the promise of eternity into the ambiguities of today, he offers the limitless resources of heaven for the pressing issues of earth. Jesus himself is pure light who penetrated the darkness of unredeemed humanity and transformed it by sacrificial love. The darkness could neither understand nor overcome it, because ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’.

The challenge is both personal and corporate. As individuals we are invited to embrace the one whose reach is global but whose call is personal. If you sense God speaking to you, stirring you to faith, perhaps for the first time, don’t ignore that voice. You might wish to look on the Diocese of Oxford website in the New Year and join one of the ‘Come and See’ groups exploring how to make faith real. And the challenge for the church is to make our corporate faith count. St John concludes his introduction: ‘We have seen his Glory, as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth’. Jesus became the presence of God for us; will we be that presence in his name for others? It is lived out in practical acts of service, in a hospitality of the spirit that accompanies others through their joys and sorrows, in the offering of shelter for body and soul. And be encouraged: in a very needy world this light continues to shine in the darkness – and the darkness will not overcome it.