Event Name Sermon given at First Eucharist of Christmas 2016
Start Date 24th Dec 2016 11:30pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

2016 has been a year of surprises. I suppose every year has its surprises, even shocks, for individuals and families. But we have experienced collective surprises, even shocks, this year. Most of us, whatever our personal preference, were not predicting a victory for Donald Trump in the presidential election in the United States. And most of us, whatever our personal preference, were not predicting the referendum decision that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union. Each decision came as a surprise even for the most powerful advocates of the outcome. Perhaps 2016 will always be remembered as one of the great years of change, a time of transition from one age to another. But I cannot imagine that 2016 will ever outrank the most famous of all dates in the history of these islands, 1066, 950 years ago this year.

In this country we think of 1066 as the last year England suffered a serious aggressive invasion from abroad. The invasion of 1066 was the last of a series of successful aggressive invasions of England from the continent of Europe, from the beginning of Christian history. A thousand years of invasions until 1066; nothing since then. Quite a year of change!

The last great invader was William Duke of Normandy from northern France. He was related to Anglo-Saxon kings of England and claimed England as his rightful territory. He believed that King Edward the Confessor, who had died on 5th January 1066, had named him as his successor. But it was Harold Godwinson, the brother of Edward’s wife Edith, who was crowned king of England here as Harold II on 6th January 1066. So William Duke of Normandy bided his time, but in the autumn of that year invaded Kent with a large force. On 14th October 1066, the battle of Hastings saw Duke William victorious. Harold II was killed and his troops defeated. On Christmas Day 1066, William of Normandy, now William the Conqueror, having established his position and securely in control of England, was anointed and crowned King of England in the Church here. Kings and queens have been crowned here ever since.

Christmas Day 1066: Christmas Day seems to us an odd day to crown a king. Christmas is for presents and turkey and Christmas trees and crackers and tinsel and too much cake and dodgy television. Of course Christmas is above all a time for worshipping God and thanking God for the birth of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. But a coronation on Christmas Day: how would you manage that?

It is not just about management, though. There is a deeper incompatibility. On the one hand, an earthly king who comes as a conqueror, winning his crown by force, killing large numbers of people and imposing a reign of terror; and on the other hand, the heavenly king who comes as a weak and helpless babe and lives his life loving and cherishing God’s people and bringing healing and hope to countless lives: the one king an agent of death; the other an agent of life. William the Conqueror 950 years ago overturned the established order and created mayhem and chaos; Jesus Christ, the Saviour, whose birth at Christmas more than 2000 years ago we continue to celebrate year by year on this day, overturned the established order and created peace and goodwill.

We should ponder this incompatibility, this contrast, for a moment. Although we may never have experienced it ourselves, we are all conscious that we are surrounded by a sea of terror. Recent events in Berlin, with the death of a dozen or more people and dozens more injured, whilst enjoying a quiet and convivial evening Christmas market, only bring home to us, in a year when summer holiday makers in Nice were similarly slaughtered, that Europe is not immune from the confusion and loss being experienced by the people of the Middle East and parts of North Africa. There so many people are desperate. We see the despair in the lives of men, women and children who are willing to risk everything, taking to a flimsy boat to cross a violent sea, for the sake of escaping poverty and conflict and in the hope of a better life. We may deplore the traffickers who enrich themselves in the face of this human misery; we may seek to inhibit this vile trade; we may worry about the difficulty for people of establishing successful lives and livelihoods in overcrowded and strange cities: but we cannot but admire the determination and courage of those who seek refuge, who long for a safer and better life for themselves and for their children.

And, because we know our hearts will break if we really contemplate the endless personal tragedies, we so readily turn away and say there is nothing we can do. Seeing mayhem and chaos all around, we are tempted to withdraw from the world and to draw ourselves into a cocoon, to create for ourselves a world of our own, a world in which all our needs can be satisfied. Some can choose that way, as some people always have: on the one hand to pursue wealth and personal power to the point where everything is coordinated with our own will, or on the other hand to live as a hermit making no demands on anyone, being sufficient unto ourselves. But neither of these ways is readily attainable for most of us, and, if they were, it is hard to imagine we should find either way truly satisfactory. There must be another way. There is another way.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, born to be the Saviour of the world, the night before he died on the cross, said to his disciples, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’

And how does Jesus overcome the world? Not by an exercise of ruthless power, ruling the kingdoms of this world with a rod of iron; not by giving people everything they ever thought they wanted and making life on earth a foretaste of paradise; not by conjuring wonders out of the air and offering human beings miracles of pointless production, like the Roman emperors appeasing the plebs with bread and circuses. Jesus overcomes the world by undercutting the world’s way, showing it to be vain and empty, by his own way of humility, his own way of self-sacrifice, his own way of self-giving love.

Jesus, born in a dirty stinking stable, born in a family seeking refuge in a strange town, born in poverty, lived as one who had nowhere to lay his head. He set us an example. If we allow him into our lives, he can help us to follow his example, to walk in his footsteps. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s way is to offer leadership through self-sacrifice, by self-giving love.

‘Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

May his peace and love be ours this Christmas!

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