The Very Reverend Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster
Friday, 24th December 2004
John 1: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overwhelmed it.
No one, I believe, has ever seriously suggested that there were horses at the manger in the stable at Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But horses were in people's minds - not the gentle trotting of the hack nor the racing demon of the flat, but four menacing horses, which were pale, black, red and white. And if you for a moment look hard through the shepherds to the village beyond; or if like an angel your glance takes in a universe, you may glimpse worlds unknown. In the village, as in the universe, you may see the fearsome shadow of these coloured horses. These are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and they still range over the world.
The first, that pale horse, is Plague. Today it is increasingly HIV and AIDS. The pale horse only needs timehe has plenty of that. And the all too familiar Black Horse of famine keeps pace. Throughout recorded history this horse has also been a fellow traveller with men and women and may be discovered at any time. He, too, is doing well: it was reported last week that 45 million children face imminent death. Meanwhile the Red horse of War stalks stealthily between dispirited nations, provoking them to forlorn conflict. But this horseman's influence is far greater than this. Almost anywhere you care to look there is not just formal war between nations but a widespread assumption, that is beginning to dominate our social life - that fight is the only possible attitude to take. And then last, comes the White Horse. It seems to stand for every imperialism which unjustly imposes domination on another. It stands for perverted power by which relationships of all sorts are used rather than celebrated.
We have had a night of angels' choirs. But around them the four horses remain unleashed. Christ comes into a world which knows plague and famine, war and perverted power as much as we do. This awesome vision has more than often seems more true than the one we proclaim this morning - a stable, a bewildered couple, a mysterious child, angels, shepherds and wise men bringing their own star to guide them. But darkness is everywhere putting out the light of everything that is loving and pure and simple. Our press builds people up not to applaud them but to bring them down. Destructiveness has become an end in itself. And those who are given to prayer and meditation find themselves in the dark night of their souls.
Then along comes Christian Christmas from which emerges a confection of devotion, of sweetness, light and innocence and weakness, goodwill and peace. The collective motto is Be nice to one another. But in the face of reality it sounds unreal; in the face of truth it appears untruthful; it constitutes the worst form of deceit, self deceit. We can never, even implicitly, blame those who suffer for their sufferings. But more and more we see that our social ills originate from our basic human fault. No one, and this seems true, need starvethere is enough for all. Wars do not just happen; people are involved. Addictions and plague are inseparably linked to our behaviour. And nothing is characteristically more human than the desire to dominate.
Yet even knowing this we still fall back on the old devices. We blame others- people in general or powers beyond us; we blame ourselves through those we do not know but are happy to use, even God himself.
The Greek poet Cavafy puts it elegantly in a poem called Waiting for the barbarians. In the great city a family stands in a crowd waiting for the barbarians to arrive. It's in question and reply mode
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn't anything going on in the senate
It continues in the same vein through the emperor who has his welcome speech to hand to the barbarians. Then...
Why all of a sudden this unrest
And confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
And all return to their homes so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come
And some people arrived from the borders,
And said there are no longer any barbarians.
And what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.
"Those people were some kind of solution" ; the others, the barbarians, however terrible they are, are necessary. Without some one or group to project our poorer selves we reckon we cannot survive. So we load the other with more and more rubbish. Thus the enemy we wished to destroy becomes necessary to us alive. But from being used to cope with our aggressiveness and so keep us and society reasonably stable, the other (the barbarians), vanish.
Our claim this morning is that such transformation can come about, that sin and evil need not dominate our lives: destructiveness can be turned to productive hope, which is the Christmas gospel; "the light shines on in the dark but the darkness has still not conquered it". We believe that where we encounter sin and evil, somewhere there God will be found.
In this world of largely man made destructiveness we do not need false optimism that things can only get better but confident faith in the larger setting of the God who becomes one of us. It may be that one day to our surprise, as in Cavaly's poem those convenient others, the Barbarians, may turn out to be not a powerful, hostile group but largely figments of our imagination, thrown up by us to protect us from whatever they carry. For example, the plague of AIDS we must believe will eventually be cured. The hungry will not starve, wars will decline and those who seek perverted power be loved into relationship. But self - belief, belief in oneself has not the power to do this; we are all caught up in our own complicated agendas. But belief that God can save us from this, may also be a form of self delusion. The message has to come from outside and be made our own; faith as a way of life ; hope as a belief in the impossible and love binding all things together. That is what today is found newborn in Bethlehem. In the all too genuine darknesses of our world shines the continuing light of Christ. "Better light a candle than curse the darkness". May the God of hope fill us this Christmas with joy in believing because "the light shines on in the dark and the dark has not conquered it."