Sermon given at Evensong of the First Sunday of Christmas 2017
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Sunday, 31st December 2017 at 3.00 PM
The first time I was allowed to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, as a young boy, I went out and looked up into the night sky, waiting to see something happen at the stroke of midnight. I wasn’t waiting for fireworks. I just wanted to see the New Year itself. That’s what I’d heard adults say. They talked about ‘seeing the New Year in’.
So it is that children sometimes misunderstand reality; take too literally a mere turn of phrase; take a fantasy as a reality. There was not really anything new to see out there in the night sky…
Or was there? Are children always completely wrong? Perhaps sometimes they see more clearly. In fact, I’m told, the night sky does contain extraordinary new things. All the time new worlds are being born out there, if not in our galaxy then beyond. Gases expand and explode, the brightness of a thousand suns dawns and heralds a new star, and perhaps new worlds as well. Or old suns suddenly pulsate with extra light—supernova, rare, unexplained, just possibly the very thing that was seen in the skies of the Middle East around the time of the birth of Christ. From the dawn of time new possibilities have been part of the very fabric of the universe. And what is true of the universe ‘out there’ is also true closer to home. Every day, every minute of the day, a new child is born, which itself is a whole new world, a world of new thoughts, imaginings, loves, potentialities. And we too, ourselves, can be re-born, with new plans, hopes, relationships, new faith.
Whenever we do encounter and experience these new worlds, have you noticed their special quality? Whether it’s the birth of a child, a new relationship, a new career, a new home, or just a New Year resolution…something about the newness brings a sense of cleanness, freshness, hopefulness—and very often a sense of new resolve. This is beautifully imagined in one of CS Lewis’s children’s stories when his new land of Narnia is born. There is a memorable scene in the story when its Creator, imagined in the form of a great Lion, stalks up and down his realm, singing his new universe into being. A narrator describes the scene:
‘In the darkness a voice had begun to sing … The voice was joined by countless other voices, in harmony but higher. And then the blackness overhead all at once was blazing with stars, constellations, planets, as if it was the stars themselves which were singing as they came into being . ‘Glory be’, said one of those watching, ‘I would have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this’.
Newness—it brings freshness, beauty, energy, moral resolve, spiritual resolve…
Of course we don’t need a preacher to remind us also how this may seem to be only half the story about new things; how the new can turn to disappointment: how all too often we are disappointed in our plans, in our relationships, in ourselves, in our political programmes, even in the very universe itself where, we are told, these new stars eventually implode and perish in heat death. New born worlds do not all grow up to fruition, but sometimes wither. Narnia itself, that imagined world, falls in the story under the spell of a wicked witch—mirroring our real world, which has constantly seemed to offer tantalizing new possibilities with one hand, and take them away with the other; a world which offered an enlightenment dream of progress, only for progress to falter; a world whose lessons of history seem to have become only a dead hand on our hopes for the future, with their reminder of all the dashed dreams of the past. And yes—honesty requires us to admit this. Disappointments in life are only too real.
But—here is the thing: Christian faith, and the particular kind of newness of Christian faith, does not rest on history in general. It rests especially on one particular slice of history, that uniquely compelling slice of history we have just celebrated: the birth of Christ, the new life of Christ, and all the fresh new resolve he brought to the world.
Yes, this too seemed to end in disappointment at his crucifixion: but then this new life also uniquely and irrepressibly sprang back—it would not stay dead; it was resurrected; it keeps breaking through in the lives of individuals and in all the great social movements energised by this life. What’s more faith sees in this new life that, actually, the deeper hidden pattern of history does always include hope, when seen in the light of eternity. Disappointment does not have the last word. In Christ the dead hand of history is prized away, our cynicism is silenced; our hopes can always be reinvigorated again.
There is much tiredness and cynicism in our so-called developed western world. We have seen too much come and go; too much promised and not fulfilled. Yet without flinching from realism, without denying the real disappointments, this story of Christ begun at Christmas still will not stop singing its song. Its refrain ripples through all scripture from beginning to end: in Christ there is a new covenant, a new Spirit within us, a new name, a new commandment, new wine, a new song in our mouth which just cannot be extinguished: ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’.
‘If I had known that I would have been a better man all my life’. But we do know it! And so I wish you all a truly happy and hopeful New Year.