Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2018
The heart of the joy of Christmas gives almost universal pleasure.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Tuesday, 25th December 2018 at 10.30 AM
The heart of the joy of Christmas gives almost universal pleasure. There is little to compare with the joy at the birth of a healthy baby: a joy for the parents, for the family and for friends. I have often witnessed the sheer delight surrounding the introduction of a new-born baby into a wider circle beyond the immediate family. When a church congregation meets for the first time a new baby, there is mighty clucking and smiling delight not just from the more elderly women but from everyone. The basic pleasure remains, though when the baby is crying again at a particularly poignant part of the service, attitudes for a time can cool.
Walter Bagehot, the 19th century writer on the British constitution, said of a royal wedding, ‘A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.’ The birth of the Prince of Peace in a similar sort of way, but much more importantly, rivets mankind. So, our celebration today of the birth of Jesus is a brilliant edition of a universal fact: the birth of a healthy baby is a delight to all. And it is not surprising that in our modern, so-called secular, society, Christmas remains the one Christian festival for which the whole country stops and every organ of the media pays its own obeisance to the simple remembrance of the birth of this little babe.
But the birth of this baby is very special and as complex and significant as we can imagine. The biblical accounts surround it with meaning. Mary and Joseph are refugees, far away from their own home. They have come to the city of David, the great king of Israel’s history, for the birth of this child. Joseph has accepted that he is not the father of the child, who is truly the Son of God as much as he is the Son of Mary. There are angels in the sky over Bethlehem, singing praises to God and alerting the shepherds to what has happened. The shepherds, who are almost the lowest of the low in status in Israel and very little educated, come to see what has happened and return to their fields glorifying and praising God. Later wise men follow the star, which is unique and announces the miraculous birth. So there is complexity and mystery in the biblical accounts by St Matthew and St Luke.
And then this morning we hear the great prologue of St John’s Gospel, which brings us to an even higher level of wonder and awe. This baby Jesus is the eternal Word of God, who was with God, the Son of God, from the very beginning, before the universe was created, and is now born into human flesh. And moreover the Word of God was and is the creative force behind the universe, ‘All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ Life itself came into being through him and life brought light in the darkness to all people.
Confronting this mystery and comprehending it is no easy business. How could God the Word be born into human flesh and exist as a baby, growing into an adolescent and into a man? What did he know or come to know of what he must have known before his birth? And who was he: a physical human being with God’s brain, God’s understanding, God’s creative power, as it were God coated with human flesh? Or a human being in every way, physical, mental and spiritual, somehow combined with the fullness of God? The Church struggled with this complexity for centuries and came up with answers, though many people who sought to understand followed false trails and were accused of heresy on the way. And still we fail to understand, cannot know, the whole reality. It is literally and metaphorically beyond our grasp, beyond our comprehension.
In one sense this is not a worry. We can believe and trust without understanding. There is a great deal in our world that we believe and trust without understanding. I can manage to make a microwave oven work without having to know how it works, thank goodness. And of course that is true of higher things too.
Earlier this year, I agreed to bury the ashes of Professor Stephen Hawking in the Abbey, between the scientists Isaac Newton, buried here in 1727, and Charles Darwin, in 1882. Stephen Hawking’s remains were buried here on 15th June this year. His gravestone reads, ‘Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking.’ Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal and cosmologist, former Master of Trinity College Cambridge, gave the address at the memorial service. He had been a friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking for very many years. He said of Hawking that ‘His mantra was: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” He also said of Stephen Hawking, ‘Stephen described his own scientific quest as learning “the mind of God”. But this was a metaphor. He resonated with Darwin’s agnosticism.’ And he quoted what Charles Darwin once wrote, ‘I feel most deeply that [religion] is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can.’
I think this reminds us that the scientific search for the origin and meaning of the universe is as complex and difficult as our religious search for an understanding of the mystery of God. One thing is clear, both that Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees understand the universe to have had a beginning, perhaps 15 billion years ago. So to my mind science helps us grope towards the idea of a creative mind, a creative force, God the Creator, the mystery that confronts us today as we ponder the wonder of the Word of God made flesh. It is also clear that science and religion are not enemies in the blue and red corners of the ring; rather science and religion stand side by side struggling with the mysteries of the universe. I wish every young student could see this.
Lecturing in 2005, Stephen Hawking concluded, ‘Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. Will [the universe] continue to expand forever? Is inflation a law of Nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again? Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting close to answering the age old questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from?’
These are questions which the Church has long answered, not the How but the Why and the Where. Why are we here? Because the creative power of God is ultimately love itself, the motivating force for all that is good and holy, the motive for the creation, to be a realm in which love can flourish and abound. And where did we come from? We came from the mind of God, the fruit of God’s love, and the procreative power of our loving parents, working in tune with the love of God.
St John said, ‘God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.’ He also said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ This is God’s gift to us this day, the most beautiful gift of all. Have a happy Christmas.