Christmas Eve Sermon

Greyfriars Sermon – Christmas Eve 2010

The years roll by and Christmases come and go. And year by year, amidst all the stress and the glitter and the hype and nonsense, I hope there is a moment when you catch a glimpse of the meaning of this birth – when the power of the story takes your breath away because it is the story of your birth and the birth of every child that comes into the world.

What an odd story we tell.

We take it to be the voice of God speaking across a Universe of time to the world, and when the word comes “it is delivered by being squeezed out of a single human body in the only painful way there is, and laid out helpless and derelict, in the heart of nowhere”. This utterly vulnerable child is completely at the mercy of forces that might send him to oblivion. Without the nurture, love and protection of others, nothing will come of this life.

It could all pass you by. We are so cynical. We’ve seen so many Christmases come and go, all packaged up in froth and bubble. For our generation, here in the affluent West, the vulnerability of a new-born child is almost a thing of the past and maybe we don’t see the danger any more.

But you do not need a religious bone in your body to see this birth we celebrate tonight in its Universal significance. There are plenty children who will be born tonight into helplessness, dereliction, violence and fear. You may not be moved by the Christ child, but are you moved by any of these weak ones, who will be forgotten by the world tomorrow? The poet Milosz speaks for all the children lost to the world by human blindness and brutality with these words:

 

Armies running across frozen plains, shouting a curse

In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank

Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk

Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

I still think too much about the mothers

And ask what is man born of a woman.

He curls himself up and protects his head

While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,

He burns with bright flames; a bulldozer sweeps him into a claypit.

Her child.  Embracing a teddy bear.  Conceived in ecstasy.

 

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

Czeslaw Milosz.

 

The birth of Jesus, speaks of the birth of every child who will die unloved and unremembered by a world that still refuses to have its heart broken in compassion and love.

This is the heart of the Christmas story, religious or not, don’t you get it? Can you see it? Can you feel or will your heart remain as frozen as the ground outside this church tonight? This Universal child, born into dereliction is the story of humanity, it is not a religious story it is a Universal story.

If you have been blessed to see and feel for this blessed child, you have also been given the grace to see the blessedness of every child. And so we have no choice, down the years, but to continue proclaiming what the Gospel writers first proclaimed that he is indeed the long expected one, that he is indeed Emmanuel – God with us, the one who makes sense of our lives and give our lives purpose and meaning – a purpose of love.

What we see in this little child, born into a world of fear and violence is the situation of the Universal child. He, and every other child, is completely dependent on you and me. Tonight is an invitation to have your heart broken. As this holy child comes to us from God knows where, the one who holds the Universe becomes the one who needs to be held, the omnipotent one becomes the most vulnerable of all. He “slips into reverse and walks back past us”, from influence, power and kingship to infancy, stepping into the body of a helpless child who will not survive a day without your love, your help, your devotion.

If you take anything from the Christmas story tonight take this: that this birth is a symbol of the Universal child, of every child.

There is a sense in which we all share the hardness of Herod by remaining indifferent to the cries of children around our world today. But the holy child of the stable at Bethlehem can help you towards a new kind of life in which both joy and suffering are immeasurably deepened when you see that the children of this world need your love and action and help and justice and compassion – not your indifference or coldness or cyncism.

Little by little, as we allow our hearts to be broken by the cries of every child born into fear and vulnerability, we might begin to remake our world, begin to love our friends and family more deeply, love our enemies and even ourselves and finally love life itself.

Every year, I end up announcing to my family my song of the year. This year it is a song by Annie Lennox, called Universal Child. It comes from an album of Christmas carols that she and all of us have grown up with and that she has recorded with her astonishing voice. All these carols are about this vulnerable, powerless child and Annie revisits their significance. Then she sings her own song, Universal Child.

It all makes sense as she sings in that moving way about the children she has held in her own arms, her own children, as a mother, and children in Africa and other places made orphans by AIDS, and the children who are the innocent victims of the world’s cold indifference and then she breaks every heart with these words:

“I can see you everywhere, your portrait fills the sky. I’m going to wrap my arms around you, my Universal Child. I look into your eyes, so innocent and pure. I see the hurt, I see the pain, I see the human race”.

These words encapsulate perfectly the meaning of this story we retell to ourselves year by year.

In the darkness of the Mary’s womb, the holy child begins to grow. In the darkness of the world’s pain a light begins to kindle, the great hope begins to rise like a lump in the throat, that the Prince of Peace will not be trodden under jackboots and forgotten but held and cared for, even in a world at war, by hearts broken by love and tender compassion on this Holy Night.    

Greyfriars and the Path to Modernity

In 1638, here in Greyfriars the National Covenant was signed. It was a document that insisted on spiritual freedom for the church and was, in many ways, ill tempered and intolerant. And yet, as a development of reformed thinking it was laying the foundations of democratic governance, universal education and enlightenment thinking. Through its innate distrust of earthly authority whether of princes or priests, the reformers insisted that each individual should be free to give an account of their life, faith and action in this world. The consequences of that were a growth in literacy across the nation (primarily in order to enable people to read the scriptures in their own tongue), the encouragement of “thinking for oneself” and the growth of individual responsibility that led naturally to the Enlightenment and scientific, rational thinking (consequences not imagined by the writers of the Covenant). John Miller, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland wrote, “I remember the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria expressing to me his country’s undying gratitude to Scotland for among other things ‘the Presbyterian pattern of engaging lay people as well as clergy in the decision-making of the church, which,’ he said, ‘prepared us for participatory democracy.’The contribution of the Scottish Reformation to the shaping of the values of the modern world cannot be underestimated.

Henryk Gorecki

Just a few weeks ago, the Polish composer Henryk Goretski died. He was a relatively obscure figure until Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta made a recording of his 3rd Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It was a piece of music that Goretski had written in honour of the many millions who had perished in the holocaust. It is hard to imagine what could be done to transform the dark shadow that the Holocaust casts over the whole of humanity. It was an eruption of brutality that occurred in the heart of western civilisation. The cries from the ghettos and gas chambers were heard in the Universities and cities of a supposedly enlightened Europe. The Holocaust called into question the whole project of the Modern World.
In the creation of a beautiful, heart-stoppingly moving and powerful piece of music, Goretski helps us all to begin to imagine a new world of healing, humaneness and reconciliation which might be created out of the ashes of that terrible moment in our shared history.
As Goretski put it himself, “perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music. Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed”.
Today, many of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, who have known the brutality of war for so long, are yearning for a new way that puts an end to brutality and hate and that makes their lives more secure. People long for peaceful cities.
Across the world, communities yearn for a new order of economics too, that fosters justice for people and for the planet and puts an end to the plundering destructiveness of an economy based on pandering to endless demands that has brutalised us all and threatens the very fabric and health of the planet.
It all makes me wonder about this idea of longing and waiting. I think of Goretski’s music and I wonder if the answer to our longing is that what we chose to do in the very next moment really matters. To sit on our hands lamenting that God has not intervened to put the world to rights is no kind of response. In creating beauty, even out of the chaos of destruction and human folly, we are fulfilling our calling as creative human beings, made in the image of God.

Priests of the earth

I love the idea that Homo – Sapiens might one day evolve to become Homo – Eucharisticus, the priests of the earth, the purpose of our intelligence being to cherish what is left of the earth and see it flourish, to see the sacred in the every day and re-enchant nature by our care, mercy, justice and humility. One of the great gurus of the environmental movement, John Seymour died a few years ago. But in one of the last speeches he gave he talked of a new age emerging for humanity. The age of plunder, he said, was being slowly replaced by the age of healing. This is not just wishful thinking, in the light of the present challenges we face in terms of environmental degradation, loss of habitat, species and climate change it is an endlessly urgent call to rethink our relationship with the natural order. Like the trees clapping their hands, we are meant, like the creator, to “love the world so much” and sing its praises and dance to the rhythms of creation.