Christmas Midnight Mass
Monday, 25 December 2023
John Conway, Provost
The light is not overcome, comprehended, mastered by the darkness. For the darkness, however much it might dominate our thoughts, cannot help us understand. Only light illuminates.
Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14
Power of the hurricane,
Voice of the dove,
Come to earth
To a blaze of angels
Called by compassion,
Formed by love. Amen.
(Joy Cowley, Psalms for the road)
There is something about this service – this Midnight Mass, at earth’s darkest hour. We normally celebrate communion in the morning, as the sun rises. But this night, we do so in darkness. And do we not feel the darkness pressing in?
I remember being taken down an old drift mine – at Beamish Living Museum in County Durham. You don’t walk far down the old mine shaft, but you turn a corner, and need to bend lower and lower. And the black coal seam becomes evident, with bays where, in the days of mining by hand, the miner would have had space to swing a pickaxe. And you’re invited to sit in one of these bays, and the lights which have guided you down are suddenly turned off. And you are in pitch blackness – so dark you can’t see the fingers of your hand held up in front of your face. And then your guide – an old miner – uncovers his tiny lamp. And that speck of light begins to illuminate the darkness. And relief floods through you, as your eyes slowly adjust, and the world begins to take shape around you.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. So declared our Gospel tonight, or as the old Authorised Version puts it – the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. Other translations have it that the darkness could not master it. The light is not overcome, comprehended, mastered by the darkness. For the darkness, however much it might dominate our thoughts, cannot help us understand. Only light illuminates.
And that is the mystery we celebrate this dark night – that in the birth of Christ is light to illuminate, to helps us make sense of things.
Launcelot Andrews, in his Christmas Day sermon of 1620, described the birth of Jesus as ‘the Word that cannot speak.’ This is how God comes among us, as a baby not yet able to speak, a wordless Word; a Word that needs to be attended to, a needy baby that calls Mary and Joseph into parenthood, into a new kind of responsibility and love. God comes not showering gifts but in the newborn’s needy cry and the suckle. God comes not in great shows of power. That is our perennial fantasy, that we can re-shape the world by might, in our own image; that things can be the way we want them to be.
But we are discovering that the world has limits; that we can’t have it all. The darkness comprehends it not. Misses the fact that this birth illuminates the world by drawing us out of ourselves, out of our fantasies of control and domination; and into relationship with God and with one another. The light reveals the world around us and asks us how we relate to the world it reveals.
[Slowly bring lights up]
For that Word of God that is Christ Jesus, will grow. He will learn to speak in the accent and cadences of love. He will encourage and teach people to fear not; will empower people to respond to the words this Word speaks, and the journey of cross and resurrection he makes. That journey begins this night, as we attend to the light, welcome the wordless Word born anew; find space in our hearts for love, for songs that echo the joy of angels. For tonight God comes; comes as the gift of this wordless Word so that we might know ourselves loved; loved and brought out of ourselves into relationship. All we need do this night is attend to the light; and like Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and kings, offer our love, our awe, our praise and joy. And then let the light do its thing. Alleluia.