Sermon given at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2019
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Tuesday, 24th December 2019 at 11.30 PM
It is my first Christmas in the Abbey, I have been here a month. Kind people keep asking me if I am looking forward to my first Christmas here. Well, yes, of course, what a place what a privilege. But… honestly... it is not quite that simple. You all have a booklet to steer you through the service. I have that too and I have another booklet, which tells me what I have to do and when, it says important things like ‘MB brings aspergillium’ or ‘Ciboria to centremost with chalice on transept side’. This booklet has twenty-six pages. Frankly, I am wondering what on earth is coming. I am terrified I will turn a page and it will say ‘Dean to south transept on a unicycle’. How do I join in? How do I avoid getting bogged down in the detail, and missing the point?
Fortunately, at Christmas that is a problem we share. Tonight it is all about not missing the point.
You see, we only ever hear part of the story. We are forever being invited to focus on the detail. It is true the detail matters, but we are always at risk of getting deflected by a part of the truth. What we got tonight, in our reading, was a census, being Joseph and Mary, travelling to Bethlehem to be registered. Notice - they are out of their element, no place for them in the inn. That is a key detail - Christmas breaks in at the wrong place, in the wrong way. It defeats expectation. That is a detail Luke really does want us to understand. Our Christmases are planned, we make it happen, take control. But, the first Christmas, Luke explains, was not an effort, or an achievement, it was half expected and yet utterly unpredictable. Then, we meet the shepherds. They were not extras from One Man and his Dog – barbour jackets, sensible shoes. Biblical shepherds were armed, the pirates of the countryside. They were absolutely the wrong people to trust with an important message. Wrong place, wrong people. These details matter.
This chaos though, is only part of the story. It is a detail. Luke wants us to notice the unexpected turns. But - big but - he wants us to know that only after he has told us something else. Luke is a historian. Like a historian, he has a big sense of purpose. We did not hear the beginning of the gospel tonight.
I [have] decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account - Luke 1:3
An orderly account, everything precisely is in its place. Luke has a plan. It is late, I could explain this at length, but you would not thank me at 2.00 a.m. Take my word for it, Luke piles up references to the Old Testament to show us how this story was anticipated, how it was expected. Luke has confidence; a plan is being worked out.
So, what we have is both a massive confidence that God has this in hand, and at exactly the same moment, a feeling that this is fragile, and on the point of failure. Which story do I tell?
Years ago, I used to read stories to our children at bed time. If it was a good story, an exciting one, at the end of a chapter we would be at a cliff edge, it would all be going wrong and I would close the book and say ‘goodnight’. They wanted to know it would be alright in the end and I would say ‘Wait and see’ and they would trust that because you can trust a good story. You can trust a good story to work everything out. It can be, in the middle of the book pretty hopeless, but it can still come good. That is what we are supposed to notice tonight. The confidence and the fear of failure. It really can feel as though it might all go badly wrong and it can still be inside a promise. That is what Luke is trying to tell us.
Christmas is this and that; the big story and the risk at its heart. Christmas is about trust in confusion, hope in the darkness. Christmas is all about not being bogged down in anxious detail all about learning to trust.
Now, with all that possibility and challenge in front of us, notice what happens. The shepherds, those oiks and oafs I described, hear the angels and - against all expectation - they decide to go and look.
‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place’
Used to thinking with hands and feet, they are off at once. They go, they look and then they tell others that they have seen. They proclaim a baby, born in Bethlehem. God bless them, they believe the story, they have looked at it, they tell a bit of it.
But, there is more,
all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart
The shepherds are believers, they can tell you what they have heard and seen. They have a detail; they want to tell you. Mary though, is something different, something more. Mary has taken this story to heart, she does not rush off; she tells no one. She does not tell a bit of the story; she is the story. Mary is more than a believer; she is a disciple.
To return to that business of reading stories - here is the difference between the person who turns to the back of the book and tells you it will be fine - and the person who sees the story through. It is the difference between rushing off and staying. It is the difference between a jumble of details and trusting the beginning and the end.
Our world is full of promises and schemes full of people who claim to be heroes and leaders forever offering us tomorrow and a happy ending. Mary though, knows that the story is here and now, fragile, not easy to accept, risky even. She knows you have to love it now, see it through, not opt for something simpler, flashier. She embraces the difficulty, literally she does that, she holds the baby in her arms. Drawing close to the crib tonight the question is asked of us, will we stay here or will go? Become a believer? That is good thing to be. We could do that and trumpet our little bit of the story. Or, we might be a disciple. We could begin to live this, trust it, even in the darkness.
Will we look and leave, or will we live this story ourselves? Whichever it is, I hope it is a Happy Christmas.