Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass at St George's Church - a sermon preached by Fr James

Its always lovely to hear children reflect on faith. When we were living in Chelsea I remember hearing my daughter singing her heart out the chorus of O come all ye faithful: ‘Gloria, hosanna in Chelsea’. I also heard of two sisters who were arguing about which of them had the more important role in the Nativity Play – and one of them brought the argument to a triumphant conclusion by saying, ‘You ask Mummy – she’ll tell you that it’s harder to be a virgin than to be an angel.’ Indeed!

At baptisms we give the person being baptised a candle. Children are transfixed by the candlelight. Light attracts. Despite all the darkness in our world - and we hear plenty of it in the media - most people are attracted to the light. We recognise goodness wherever we see it. At Christmas we celebrate the divine light that has entered our world. Into our world Jesus Christ is born, we celebrate his birth at this dark midnight hour, in a church ablaze with light.

John's Gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it... The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world." (John 1.5, 9) Whilst we affirm tonight that Jesus is the light of the world, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other lights, lights beyond the Christian tradition. It’s only the most arrogant sort of tribal religious faith that holds to a view where God is only on our side, or that we alone have the complete truth. We need a spirit of humility and openness to recognise and honour other lights and perhaps ask what we might learn from them.

In St Paul’s version of Holman Hunt’s The Light of Christ, there is a reference to Islam. Next time you’re at the Cathedral, look closely at the lantern that Christ is holding. One of its apertures is in the form of a crescent moon. The story goes that a Muslim man questioned Hunt on the title of his original version of the painting. As Christ was indeed the light of the whole world, and as he is recognised as a prophet in the Qur’an, why had the artist omitted reference to Muslims? So Hunt included a crescent moon with the lantern.

Whether it really happened quite like that may be open to question, but one of the aspects of Hunt’s personality that remains attractive is his openness to new ideas and new people, and his understanding that the Christianity faith is a way of interpreting the world, not a closed set of rules and practices to be protected from outsiders (Nick Tromans).

Two people who have who have recently shown us glimpses of the light from beyond the Christian tradition are a Muslim and a Hindu. The 17-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala, shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in October 2012 and she has since campaigned for girls' education. The other, Kailash Satyarthi, the Indian child rights campaigner, both of whom have received the Nobel Peace Prize awards. It was lovely to hear Malala speaking so honestly, saying that she was the only Nobel Peace holder who fights with her brother… although I really doubt that’s the case.

In a world full of darkness and violence, much of it linked with religious fundamentalism, the Nobel committee described both laureates as ‘champions of peace’, there to stand up for the rights of forgotten and frightened children, and raise their voice rather than pity them. Through the work of Kailash, over 80,000 children have been freed from slavery. And he has the scars to prove it… scars covering much of his body as a result of opposition. Through their lives the light has shone. Inspiring examples from other religious traditions.

Faced with the most violent sort of fundamentalism, I’ve heard people argue that what we need in today’s world is for us to become less religious – that we need more of the light of reason. I’m all for the light of reason (to a degree) but I’m not entirely convinced by this argument. Rather, we need to recognise that there is such a thing as good religion and such a things as bad religion. We can all recognise it when we see it. We need more good or healthy religion.

The sort of religion that has inspired great (if imperfect) people like Nelson Mandela, Malala, Kailash Satyarthi… as well as the untold and unheard of millions of acts of kindness and compassion. Of those who will work tomorrow serving Christmas meals to elderly people at SMA; of those from this church who have bought presents for them; of the homeless centres offering shelter and food throughout London. Through these acts of compassion the light of the world shines.

Light is our native home; we are attracted by the light. Yes we may be fascinated with evil, and we are often beguiled by it. But it’s not our homeland. It is but a journey to far country. And all this is encapsulated in this baby, who comes from his dwelling in unapproachable light to our dark world, a world that has always been shot through with his light, but has never really understood it. Of course, we still don’t fully understand it. We may not quite know what we believe or if we believe. We may not know why exactly we’ve come to church tonight. We may feel that our faith is, as David Cameron put it a few years ago, ‘…a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns, it fades in and out’. That’s certainly been my experience of faith. I’ve felt for years now that faith has its seasons – the vitality and growth and beauty and energy of Spring, as well as the stark, barren and dark times of winter. All are part of the journey of faith.

And yet, we are attracted by this mysterious and compelling light. And we discover, through Jesus, that darkness was not able to overcome the light, that hate and malice cannot defeat love. The joys of heaven have touched earth in this wonderful birth, so that light and love are inextricably bound up in this baby. Love has become present at Christmas.

This Christmas night, receive the light and love of Christ. Here is the mystery of the Christian faith enacted before you. Let the light of Christ draw you ever deeper into his love.

Holland Park Benefice