Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Christmas day 2009
25 December 2009 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Isaiah 52: 7–10; Hebrews 1: 1–4; John 1: 1-14
This joyful festival of Christmas invites you and me into the stable to take delight in the Christ child and to worship him. As we kneel at the manger, we are in the company of the Mother of Jesus and her husband Joseph, with the shepherds and with the angels. The ox and the ass, by ancient tradition, themselves worship the Christ child. They represent the whole animal kingdom. Christmas is a holy and beautiful time, reflecting one of the wonders at the heart of the Creation, the mystery of birth, of procreation and yet individuality. Christmas encourages us with light and love in the midst of the winter gloom, but it also draws us closer to understanding the purpose of the Creation, the very meaning of life.
2010 sees two significant anniversaries for Westminster Abbey. The first of these anniversaries celebrates an event 450 years ago on 21st May 1560 when Queen Elizabeth I issued a Royal Charter, which marked the transition of the Abbey from a community of monks ruled by an Abbot to its current status and character as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster, governed by the Dean and Chapter and subject to the Sovereign as Visitor. We plan to celebrate this significant anniversary in a number of ways.
The second anniversary in 2010 might not at first sight seem to be important to the Abbey. Next year the Royal Society will celebrate its 350th anniversary. The purpose of the Royal Society was originally stated as being to improve natural knowledge; now it is understood as the United Kingdom’s leading independent Science organisation, promoting scientific knowledge and understanding. The Royal Society is important to the Abbey for at least two reasons. The first is this. One of the founders of the Royal Society in 1660 was Sir Christopher Wren, best known as the architect of the new St Paul’s Cathedral after the Fire of London, but also for some years Surveyor of the Fabric to Westminster Abbey, where he left quite a mark. The second reason why the Royal Society is significant to us here is that one of its early members, still known as one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, Sir Isaac Newton, who in 1666 discovered gravity, is buried and memorialised to the west of the Quire screen at the front of the Nave. Near him are buried other distinguished scientists, including Charles Darwin, the two hundredth anniversary of whose birth we have been observing in the Abbey this year.
It is often claimed today, not least by those whose role requires them to promote the understanding of Science, that Science can disprove Religion, that you can either be scientific or religious but not both. This is one of the most widely promoted and, sadly, widely held myths of the current age. It is however nonsense. There are, I am delighted to say, many scientists who are also religious and Christian believers. One of the themes to emerge from our study during 2009 of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was published 150 years ago this year in his book on the Origin of Species, has been that, although he ended his life without a personal Religion, Darwin thought it perfectly possible to accept his evolutionary theory and to be an orthodox Christian believer. So it is for countless Christians today, who both accept the theory of evolution and believe in God as Creator.
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ [John 1: 1], we heard just now, the first words of St John’s Gospel. They echo of course the first words in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ [Genesis 1: 1] St John, unlike St Luke, recounts no story of the babe laid in the manger, worshipped by the shepherds. Unlike St Matthew, St John tells no story of wise men from the East come to adore the baby Jesus. St John at the beginning of his Gospel goes to the heart of religious truth: the Divine Logos, the Word of God, with God, God, from before the creation of the universe, has been born amongst us as a baby, Son of God and Son of Mary. To put it another way, the logic behind the universe, the very purpose and meaning of life, is now in Jesus Christ our Lord accessible to us human beings. Jesus was to say, ‘The Father and I are one’ [John 10: 30] and ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ [John 14: 9].
In the BBC there is a unit with television reporters who are set up to ask the same series of questions of anyone with anything to say for the News. The reporters may know nothing about the issue themselves but asking the same sequence of questions yields enough for the necessary television news sound-bite. The reporter is never shown. The six universal questions are: Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why? Of course they are the questions that reporters and detectives alike are trained to ask. I hope that some of you at least this Christmas will have great pleasure in concluding that it was Professor Plum in the Library with the dagger, or Mrs Peacock in the Dining Room with the candlestick.
But for our purposes today the two really important questions about the meaning of life are How? and Why? Only Science can answer the question How? It might look at first sight as though the book of Genesis aims to answer that question – but a slightly closer study reveals that Genesis contains two separate and quite different accounts of the Creation. We must therefore conclude that it cannot intend to state how the universe was created, rather it seeks to answer the question Why? Science’s understanding of how the universe came into being advances little by little, though the progress is inevitably unsteady and there remain many mysteries. It is conceivable if unlikely that ultimately Science will have answered all the remaining How? questions. But Science can and will never be able to answer the Why? question nor will Science be able satisfactorily to disprove the validity of the Why? question.
Religion does have the answer to the question Why? God’s purpose in the creation is purely for love, to make a place and a people whom God could love and who could share that love with one another. Through and in Christ, we can come to see that clearly. The night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love… I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ The baby Jesus, to whose crib we come to worship today, as an adult demonstrated the ultimate commitment of love and showed us how far God loves us and the whole of His Creation. Out of love for us, our Lord Jesus Christ gave away all he had, even life itself, for us his friends.
In and through Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate today, may the overwhelming, self-giving love of God, revealed in his Son Jesus Christ, be born anew in our hearts and transform our lives. Through him who lived, died and was raised to new life for us may we find newness of life and the everlasting joy of faith, hope and love.
On behalf of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster it is a pleasure to wish you a very happy Christmas.