Midnight Mass – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14

I don’t know about you, but this has felt, among many other things, like a year of statistics. It has become almost a daily ritual to check the Covid rates in Edinburgh, and then to worry about hospitalisation rates, to compare infection rates across countries and continents even as we also read articles that tell us how difficult it is to statistically compare. It’s been a year of statistics for vaccine efficacy; for the rate of vaccine take-up; of the R number. And through it all, the statistic of the mounting number of those who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test – 147,720 people in the UK as of yesterday. And the estimated 5.4 million people worldwide who have died from Covid since the pandemic started. Such numbers are almost unimaginable, do scarce justice to the reality: the danger with statistics is for the sheer size of the issue, the weight of humanity represented in these numbers, to be what distances us from what is happening for each of the people represented in those numbers; the sheer mass of numbers masks the particular story of each.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of one particular human being. In the midst of our current crisis and challenge, is there any reason to focus on this human life any more than any one of the other billions of humans who have populated, lived and died, on our planet? This child is not any more, or less, human than any of those many others, than you or me even.  Jesus, in the vulnerability that calls forth the love of Mary and Joseph, in the fact that he is immediately subject to the whims of forces and powers beyond his control, to the rage of Herod that forces him to flee with his family; in all that he is as human as the rest of us. And yet our faith proclaims that in this particular human life, the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it. That does not make Jesus uniquely special in a way that no one else is: instead this human life reveals that this is the way God reaches out and loves each one of us– in the very depths of every particular human life. God does not love in the abstract, through the contemplation of statistics, but loves every human being unconditionally and equally. Jesus we proclaim reveals the divine in the human, to open that way to each and every human being, to each of us. We may struggle to comprehend the humanity behind the statistics – but God does not. For this is how God comes – in love to every particular, unique, special, wonderful, glorious, broken, human life.

God comes not as some ideal of peace and calm, or as the idea of love. God comes not in the form of a sermon on love or a treatise on peace. God comes into our reality as it is, however muddled and muddied it may be, like the stable at Bethlehem, with straw and cow dung. If Christmas is about an ideal then we are easily oppressed by it because we rarely live up to it (Christmas is supposed to be about peace and love, so why does my family irritate the hell out of me?). Or, as an ideal, we decide it’s not practical, and dismiss it as irrelevant and carry on regardless – as if the message of peace proclaimed at Christmas is simply some sentimentalized story to warm our hearts, and please the children, and therefore has little to say that will redeem our mess and muddle, our anxiety and fear.

But God does not come as an ideal: God comes not as a plea for world-peace; not as an insistence that you have a good time; not as the latest consumer product that life is incomplete without. God comes in a particular place, at a particular time, as a defenceless baby. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

The invitation of this night is for us to come and see, gaze upon God come among us and place that fact in the midst of our living, in the midst of any family squabbles and tensions, in the midst of our griefs and sorrows heightened by absence, in the midst of our anxiety and fear at the continuing pandemic.

To place God in the midst of all that – to gaze upon the Christ child born this night – is paradoxically, given our current predicament, to be brought into joy. Like the shepherds we are brought to rejoicing. This wee babe we welcome tonight, in all his unprotected vulnerability, like countless children before and since, has the capacity to break hearts, to breach our defences, unplug our wellsprings. Joy bubbles up this night – that is God’s gift we receive tonight, and everything is put in its place because joy bursts forth. The joy of Mary, as she forgets the pain and travail of birth, forgets the alien surroundings and the worries about tomorrow, and cradles her child close. Joy melts our hearts and makes living worthwhile – without it the present giving and receiving, the surplus of food, is strangely sterile and empty. God comes amongst us bringing joy. And from our joy flows our giving, our celebration, our peace-making – the gratuitous acts of people in love, delighting in our ability to mirror the gratuitous, gracious, unmerited overflowing of love that is God. This night, light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

God comes among us not as an ideal to admire, but fail to live up to, but as a child and a man who, in the midst of our brokenness, loves his people into joy, into resurrection life. Tonight we are not here to worship an ideal, but have come to be visited by joy, and to carry that joy into whatever mess and muddle, whatever anxiety and grief, is ours, so that stumblingly we too may offer our gestures of generous joy. For God’s resurrection joy and life is unconquerable, and it is revealed as with us this night. To celebrate Christmas is to celebrate the God who comes, not in the general ideal, or the vague sentiment, but in a particular human life – a particular human life born in that stable long ago; and because of that human life, we now realise, God comes to meet us in love in every particular human life. In you and me, and every one of our neighbours. Amen.

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