Midnight Mass – John Conway, Provost – 24th December

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14

In the name of God, Source of all being, Eternal Word, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is an old legend told about Joseph, often the overlooked participant in our Christmas stories. The legend tells of Joseph walking over the hills on Christmas Eve night (having, we hope, settled Mary as comfortably as possible). Sometimes it is said that he is fetching the midwives, but I suspect that, like men were in the olden days, he’s been banished from the women’s labour of giving and enabling birth and is pacing the hills outside wondering what on earth is happening.

And suddenly as he crosses the hillside, the world stops – an intense, unimaginable silence descends: the stars are stopped in their courses. The birds in the air are still, suspended in mid-flight. The fish in the lake cease their endless movement. Shepherds huddled round a fire, their hands extended out toward the communal pot, are suddenly frozen in time. Even the grass of the field no longer blows in the wind but is still. All things living are reduced to stillness, as if every being held its breath.

And then the silence is broken – by waters gushing once more, animals of earth and air and water move again, and the stars resume on their way; perhaps in the distance is the cry of a baby, Word made flesh. As the immense brilliance which now suddenly illuminates all things reveals, this has been the moment of birth, of agony and ecstasy, and the whole earth is united in holy celebration.

Welcome all wonders in one sight !
Eternity shut in a span !
Summer in winter ! day in night !
Heaven in earth ! and God in man !
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to earth !

As Richard Cranshaw’s words celebrate, the birth we rejoice in this night is the coming of God’s eternal Word, God’s Word of love and longing, into our midst, into our world of ceaseless bustle and hassle. As we gather in the darkness to welcome the light, so we make space for that unimaginable silence of God, that unconquerable depth which gives life to all things. That which cradles all things, is himself now cradled. God comes close tonight, breaks through from outside our same old, same old, ways. The stories give us a clue as to what that Presence of God means: in angels blazing out Glorias across the sky; in shepherds running to worship at the manger and returning glorifying God; in wise men who will kneel and adore. Wherever is God’s presence, there is praise. Like Mary and Joseph, no doubt there has been for us a certain amount of rushing around, a journey or two even, to get us here. But now is the moment to draw and hold our breath, and to stop, for here is something beyond our ken – heaven in earth; provoking our wonder and praise.

And as Christmas draws us into that praise, we find that the world looks different; different in the light of God shining out of from the poverty of a stable, from the vulnerability and need of a baby cradled in his mother’s arms, suckling hard to draw nourishment and strength. Tonight invites us onto a journey deeper into those unimaginable depths of God from which spring life, life in all its fullness; tonight we stop to hear that stillness in which the whole earth draws breath, and so that the Christ might be born in us, and that we might recognise Christ in all.

That’s the challenge of Christmas – or better it’s what the joy of Christmas opens our eyes to: the presence of God, not just here in this Cathedral at midnight, not just among friends and family, but in all times and places, in each and every one of our neighbours: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic and atheist; and even in that most unlikely of places, ourselves. Christians have become so defence of Christmas – worrying about whether it’s still sufficiently religious, being celebrated in the right way; when actually the heart of Christmas is God arriving where we do not expect God to be – in a stable out the back of an inn; God, who crosses the barriers and separations we erect; a birth that makes us stop, and draws us into that unceasing and ever creative life of God which is our life and salvation.

In Christ your Son, our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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