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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at the First Eucharist of Christmas Friday 24 December 2010

24 December 2010 at 23:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Isaiah 9: 2-7; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ [Isaiah 9: 2]

If only we could see! 

Those of us who live in cities miss most of the time one of the most spectacular and impressive natural sights, that of the sky studded with stars. Even on the darkest nights in this city we can only have a sketchy idea of the sky at night in deeply rural parts of the country. And that is only a shadow of the sight in parts of the world where the nearest town is hundreds of miles away.

Last Sunday evening at a meditation here in the Abbey I read a poem called Advent Calendar by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about the coming of Jesus Christ. One stanza reads:

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

I love that image of the ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ – the sky so full of stars that it looks like snow-flakes falling thick and fast.

We cannot see these ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ during the day when the light of the sun is bright. We cannot see these ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ when the clouds are covering them like a veil. We cannot see fully these ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ when the bright lights of our urban lives challenge them for pre-eminence. We cannot see these ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ when our eyes are on the pavement or in the gutter. If only we could see!

The brightness of more glitzy attractions than the stars, the clouds threatening our comfort or security, the obsessions and pre-possessions of our urban lives, our preoccupation with the pavement and gutter, with getting and spending: all these keep us from seeing. They keep us from seeing what is of real beauty: the wonderful mystery of God’s creative love for us, of God’s coming among us in the life of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, of God’s loving presence through his Holy Spirit. 

But tonight we have our eyes opened. If not on this dark night ‘the star-snowed fields of sky’, then in our imagination, in the secret of our hearts, we can with the shepherds see the angels in the skies and the ‘glory of the Lord that shone around them’ [cf Luke 2: 9]. We can hear ‘with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’’ [Luke 2: 13, 14]

In our mind’s eye, we can go with the shepherds as they ‘said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’’ [Luke 2: 15] With them we can see ‘Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.’ [Luke 2: 16] As we entered the church this evening, we saw the crib at the east end of the nave. These representations can only go so far in opening our hearts and minds to the reality we celebrate this night. If only we could see!

If we could see, we would see the mystery at the heart of the universe, at the heart of the creation: that all there is exists for love, with the singular purpose of being where God can share love with those he creates. If we could see, we would see that this love of God is so amazing that God in his eternal Word is born into flesh so that God himself can share our human condition and live and die with us and for us.

This mystery is too easily obscured through the brightness of more glitzy attractions, the clouds threatening our comfort or security, the obsessions and pre-possessions of our daily lives, and our preoccupation with the pavement and gutter. But tonight, Our Lord Jesus Christ himself welcomes us into his holy Church. Our Lord welcomes us to celebrate his birth. Our Lord welcomes us into the beauty of his love. Our Lord calls us to open our eyes and see, to see his resilient, everlasting love for us, the love which is the most reliable truth in the world.

Much more than this, Jesus Christ offers us the possibility of sharing his life with ours. Just as Mary cradled the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, and cradled the broken body of her Son taken down from the Cross, so we are able tonight sacramentally in this holy Eucharist to receive as a gift the very life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in the bread broken and the wine outpoured, the very body and blood of the Lord. This gift opens to us the way to eternal life, where we can see and hear the eternal song of the angels and the glory and beauty of God himself, where we can add our voices to the eternal triumphant song of heaven.

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