The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Sunday, 24th December 2017 at 11.30 PM
In this northern hemisphere we’re now at the time of the longest, darkest, nights of the year. 400 years ago, on one such long dark night in December, the King gathered with courtiers in Whitehall. Not for some great matter of state. But to hear a new Christmas carol. You may know it. We still sing it.
What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing the birth of this our heavenly King.
Dark and dull night, fly hence away
And give the honour to this day, that
sees December turned to May…
‘December turned to May’. A striking image. An image of a ‘midwinter spring’. Another poet TS Eliot echoes it.
What are these poets speaking of? Not of course just unseasonal warmth in the depth of December—which in these days of global warming is barely unseasonal anyway. They’re not poems about strange turns in the passage of weather or seasons, but about a strange turn in the human journey. A midwinter spring in the cycle of our lives. Something that sees the December of our lives turned to May. They’re speaking of an intervention from eternity into our human journey, which can come at any time, which re-frames our life, gives it a whole new trajectory, lights it up with new meaning, as surely as the shepherds were lit up by the angels message to them on the first Christmas night. They’re speaking of that intervention into all our lives represented in God’s coming amongst us in Christ.
That coming of Christ has indeed given the world new light. It has undoubtedly re-shaped society. The Christian movement which followed Christ’s birth, flawed though it has been over the centuries, has at its best given dignity to the poor and humble; liberated slaves, women, and children from servitude; helped fire great enlightenment ideals of human value, freedom, equality—for all.
And it’s offered new light for us personally too. When the eternal God intersected uniquely in time with that individual human life of Christ, it wasn’t only to inaugurate new social values: it also provided the means to transform every individual life. For it was by his experience of being an individual human Himself—by living that life, dying that death, and rising from that death—that the eternal God equipped Himself to become part of our individual experience too: it is how he became able truly to accompany us, love us, forgive us, re-form us all in our individual paths through life—and through death. It is how He could be credibly ‘God with us’ (if we are willing) in a way that no other religion or philosophy from Hinduism to Hege has quite been able to offer.
This truth is here for us all, at any time, in any age. But in an age of such general anxiety and instability as ours, it surely has particular power. To know God is so profoundly with us is indeed ‘good news of great joy’! And that’s the meaning of Christmas we celebrate now on this December night of 2017…
I know it’s not exactly the meaning which the world around is celebrating. Our largely post-Christian, pagan, world mostly tries to turn winter into spring, to lift spirits at a dark time of year, more simply and straightforwardly: by spending, feasting, general goodwill, fun, family reunions (at least for those fortunate enough to have these things). And in fact I think that too is a thoroughly good thing!—humanity needs a lift at dark times and Christians should not be grudging about it. I hope we join in (I hope we have also in some way helped others join in who otherwise would be left out). But I hope we join in the feasting and fun with this deeper faith too: the faith that this feasting is not just a temporary whistling in the dark; the faith that there is also a deeper more lasting, transformation possible, made possible by that extraordinary intervention from eternity.
When ‘light is failing on a winter’s afternoon’, Eliot’s poem concludes, remember ‘the voice of this calling’. Remember, that is, this calling and promise of God in Christ to be truly and transformatively with us...if we’re willing. And in remembering it, may you all have this night both a holy and happy Christmas. Or if circumstances prevent you from being happy, still a holy and hopeful Christmas…