The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Monday, 24th December 2007
Isaiah 62: 6-end; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: 8-20
I have been learning about the first time in the modern era that Westminster Abbey celebrated a Midnight Eucharist. It was Christmas Eve 1941 and truly dark outside.
On that day, 102 men of the Royal Navy had been killed or were missing presumed killed at sea. On that day the Japanese Imperial Army had invaded Hong Kong and Kuching, following up their dramatic intensification of the Second World War seventeen days earlier when 183 Japanese warplanes had attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. For the United States, the Second World War had begun. On that day, a joint meeting of the British and American chiefs of staff had taken place in the Federal Reserve building in Washington DC. On that day Joseph Goebbels in an address to the German forces had said there was much for which to be thankful.
In Westminster Abbey on that day, preparations had been made for an innovation. A contemporary account records that “special circumstances led to a Celebration of the Holy Communion, with hymns, being held at midnight on Christmas Eve. At all hours of the night now, men come on duty, whether at Ambulance Stations, Assistance Fire Service Stations or in the many Government Offices in Whitehall where the necessities of war require men and women to work all through the night.” That night, 66 years ago, a congregation of nearly a thousand showed how real was the need it met. Owing to the blackout restrictions no light was permitted save that of four candles. The chronicler commented that “if it was in one way a strange and unusual scene, this large crowd in the darkness, unpierced save by the four candles, it was also strikingly symbolic: it is in the terrible darkness of a world war that the Holy Feast is being observed.”
The darkness of this present moment is not to be compared with the darkness of that terrible time during a world war 66 years ago. Even so, there are reasons enough for us to be aware of the darkness outside. Earlier this month the Abbey held a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for the nine men killed and twenty seriously injured of one battalion on one tour of duty in Afghanistan. There seems no early end in sight to the conflicts there and in Iraq, to the sufferings of the people of Darfur and Zimbabwe, to the division and pain of Israel/Palestine. Those may seem far countries of which we know little, even in these days of international travel and instant news, but like the state of the world’s economy and the threat through global warming, their problems have the power to affect us all.
The chronicler of the first Midnight Eucharist here in the Abbey concluded his account, “We can say with truth that ‘the people that sat in darkness have seen a great light’.” He was quoting a promise from the prophet Isaiah that, with the birth of a child, all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood would be burned as fuel for the fire. Isaiah also predicted that they would “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; and that nation would not lift up sword against nation, neither learn war any more.” All the weapons of war would be turned into farm implements for nothing more damaging than pruning the fruit trees and preparing the soil for new planting. We may ask how the birth of a child could make all that difference.
Of course, the birth of any child makes a difference, bringing light and hope into many lives. But the angel said of this child, “See, I am bringing you news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This child, the angel said, would with God’s loving involvement exercise power and would use his power to save all the people. He would bring light in the darkness not to some lives but to all lives.
We can see the beginnings of this in Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus himself says to the disciples of John, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Do you remember the blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, who hears that Jesus is passing near and calls on him to have mercy? His disciples are reluctant to disturb Jesus and tell the man to be quiet, but Jesus calls him and restores his sight saying, “Go, your faith has made you well.” The man becomes a follower of Jesus.
This power of Jesus to love and care for all people, to shed light in the darkness, reaches well beyond the life of his own community, when for example he heals the daughter of a Gentile woman living beyond the borders of Israel. This power also reaches beyond his death and resurrection, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, into the life of the Church and of every Christian, so that we who have been enlightened by Christ have the power and duty to show that same loving care to all in need, to shed in our turn light in the darkness.
Tonight, in contrast with the first Midnight Eucharist here 66 years ago, this Abbey Church is a blaze of light, a light matched by the joy and warmth we all feel as we begin our celebration of the birth of Jesus to be the light of the world. Tonight, in the words of St Paul, “we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
In celebrating the birth of Jesus, may you enjoy the warmth and light of Christ, and may this Christmas be for you and all those you love a truly peaceful and blessed festival!