Sunday 24 December - Midnight Mass - Stephen Holmes

Midnight Mass Christmas 2017 –

+ ‘The Virgin Mary had a baby boy; he come from the glorious kingdom.’

‘Late last night in the middle of the day, a fire broke out in the ocean. A blind man saw it, a deaf man heard it, a dumb man shouted out fire. Along came a fire engine without any wheels, ran a dead dog over and nearly killed it.’

This was a nonsense poem my Grandad taught me when I was young, if you look on folklore websites there are many different versions of it. Such contradictory rhymes are found in Anglo-Saxon riddles, and in popular culture everywhere, and we seem to like them.   

Why do we celebrate Christmas when, if you look at the words in your booklets, it sounds like a nonsense poem? A pregnant virgin had a baby boy – come off it! ‘Lo, within a manger lies; He who built the starry skies’ – you’ve more chance of seeing a fire break out in the ocean. But we love it. I had my hair cut last week and the barber said he loves Christmas because he goes to his girlfriend’s family, gets drunk, eats too much and isn’t at work. Don’t knock it. They said of Jesus that he was a glutton and a drunkard and mixed with the wrong sort of people. In our culture, which produced the nonsense poetry, Christmas is still a time of family and feasting as the long dark nights start getting shorter.

Christianity is about Jesus. He is God ‘who built the starry skies’, who was born and ‘within a manger lies’. He was killed on the cross, rose from the dead and his death and resurrection enable us to live life to the full; to overcome death and pain and despair. Christianity exists between the baby-God in the manger and the dead man who is alive.

You would think that in popular culture (I’m not speaking about religious types) it would be the dead man coming back to life that would cause us to party. But no, we love Christmas more than Easter. Here at St John’s our congregation is growing, we are opening our new community hub, the Cornerstone Centre, next year when this building will be 200 years old, and about 220 people come to church on a normal Sunday. At Easter Day it is about 350 but on Christmas Day 1,100. Why Christmas? Yes, it’s all commercialised, but they wouldn’t do that if we didn’t like it. Why Christmas?

When pouting girls remember Dad,

And oafish louts remember Mum,

And sleepless children's hearts are glad.

And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'

Even to shining ones who dwell

Safe in the Caledonian Hotel.

Family and tradition are important, but I’d suggest it’s not all Charles Dickins, presents, elves and Santa. Behind them and at the heart of it all is the story of a baby. And it’s a nonsense story, because the baby in the ox’s stall is also God and Lord of all.

Well might we say with the poet:

And is it true, and is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,

A Baby in an ox's stall ?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,

No loving fingers tying strings

Around those tissued fripperies,

The sweet and silly Christmas things,

Bath salts and inexpensive scent

And hideous socks so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare -

That God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Tolkien, he of the hobbits and the rings, said that yes, Christianity is a myth; but it is the one myth that happens to be true. It is the nonsense poem that makes more sense than a scientific textbook. And part of it being true is that if God the creator of the universe is a tiny, vulnerable baby with poor parents, then, in a sense, every baby, every human, even every living thing – needs to be loved and treated with respect and honour. And they are not.

Today, as we sing our carols and come up to the altar rails to receive Christ in the bread and wine of this holy sacrament and become Christ in our community, let us resolve to love more and thus to change the world, because

…God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Merry Christmas to you all, enjoy the day, the food, the drink, the people - and remember why we party.