My Christmas sermon from Midnight Mass in Croydon Minster (as broadcast on BBC1). Happy Christmas!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ That’s what the angels sing to the shepherds, still trying to understand the message they’re heard. The very first Christmas carol, you could say – the first song in response to the birth of Christ, sung as the event itself was unfolding: a song of wonder and rejoicing at the amazing thing that God was doing. And from then to now, people love singing carols. As someone said to me one Christmas, why is it that we have to have all those readings, they just get in the way of the carol singing. He was trying to wind me up – but he was onto something. When we sing we open ourselves up; we can be touched by the wonder of God. But it can be risky too – we become vulnerable. As a child I loved singing, but sadly other people didn’t love my singing as much as I did. After being told to be quiet once too often it took me years to discover that actually I could sing OK.
The song of praise that the angels sang, the carols that we sing, invite us all to take the risk of opening our hearts, to God and to the world God loves. They ask us to believe that this birth, this nativity, is the gift of a child not merely to one family, but to the whole world. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the gift of new life is offered to the whole world by God; we are given the chance to turn our lives again toward God and to receive that new life into our own lives. We are all invited to join in the angels’ song and to make it our own; not just something we listen to, but something we live, the rhythm and beat of all that we do and all that we are. It’s the best earworm ever, a joyful song which is still there whatever may be happening in us or around us, even in the darkest places and times a reminder of the hope we have in God.
Each of us is invited to share in the song of Christmas, but there’s even more – the angel’s song does not only praise God, it also talks about God’s blessing on the world. ‘Glory to God in the highest’, the song of praise, leads directly into ‘peace on earth among those whom he blesses’. Living the story of Jesus in our own lives is not merely for our own personal benefit. As those who are living in harmony with God we are called to bring harmony into relationships and situations which are broken and discordant – in ourselves, in our families and communities, in our society and across our world.
Of course, that’s also the risky bit. Singing carols together is wonderful – the singing itself gives voice to that desire which is deep in all our hearts, the desire for a world in which we can live in harmony with one another and with ourselves. But if this song is your song, if it’s what keeps your life in tune, then you need to keep singing it after the nativity set’s been put away. And you might get told to be quiet, like I was as a small boy. Because the Christmas song is about a world turned upside down – or maybe better to say, an upside down world turned back up the right way.
The gift that God gives is the promise of a world made new. The celebrations of Christmas can be an escape from the world and all its pressures and problems – and maybe we all need that. Much more importantly, though, the Christmas gift God brings to us is hope for a world renewed. Those of us who wish to continue singing the angels’ song do so through witnessing to that hope precisely where hope seems hardest to come by. In the practical work of winter night shelters and food banks; in welcoming refugee children seeking reunion with their families; in offering care and companionship to the lonely and the sad; in seeking ways to avert the climate change crisis – in these and in many other ways the angels’ song continues to be sung in our country and in our world.
The angel’s song, the carols we sing, express the human yearning for a more complete, a more whole, a more human life. That is God’s desire too; God wants to bless the world. As you celebrate this Christmas, as you sing this story again, my prayer is that you will find in that song a way to live every day in hope, faith and love. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t sing! We all have a voice, we all have a song. In a world of uncertainty and anxiety, may the angels’ song be sung loud and clear: peace on earth, good news to all people. Amen.