24th December 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I started learning how to preach a little more than ten years ago. The world looked quite different back then. The heady optimism of the post-cold war era hadn’t entirely dissipated. Many people were still quite optimistic about the world and the prospects for humanity. The challenge at that time was persuading people who were for the most part quite comfortable and optimistic about the human race that the rather stark biblical language of darkness and light had something important to say to them.
It’s amazing how much things have changed in these last ten years. There’s no challenge now persuading anyone that the darkness is real. I think we all know that. In this time when the concept of secular progress is on the ropes, the challenge is rather persuading anyone that the angels’ message of peace and goodwill can yet offer us any hope. In this time when the sounds of war again shake the skies over the Holy Land, the challenge is rather persuading anyone that the angelic message is not entirely drowned out. It’s very easy, perhaps even natural, to feel despondent and powerless when we consider the wastes and sorrows of the world.
Let me tell you a story. I was recently approached in Waitrose by a gentleman previously unknown to me, who greeted me warmly. He told me that he had seen me driving my car: at this my heart immediately started to sink. And he told me that I had been rushing to make the lights: my heart sank still further. His car had been coming the other way, and I had apparently given him a look that spoke many words, none of them fit to be repeated from this pulpit! I could only apologise: the fact is that I can sometimes be like that when I get behind the wheel of my car, and probably even worse when I’m on my bike.
Fortunately for me this gentleman seems to have found the episode very amusing, but of course that’s not really the point.
The point is that we all have to a greater or lesser extent forces of profound selfishness and aggression latent within us, which bubble up in all sorts of situations. And when we look in sadness at the condition of the world around us, or for that matter when we look in sadness at the problems that can bubble up even within our own communities and workplaces and families, there is really no very great mystery about it. That urge that causes us to pursue what we want when we want, even if it means trampling over others, that urge is the root of the greater part of the world’s troubles. Sometimes it is dressed up in the language of economics or politics or religion. But it is this destructive selfishness, or those collective forms of selfishness that we see in the various kinds of national or religious chauvinism, it is this that is the underlying cause.
And if that is true, then we are not powerless: we may not be able to have any very meaningful influence over events in the Holy Land or Ukraine, but what we do have influence over is our own behaviour and its impact on those who happen to cross our paths. Of course that’s easy to say. But so often we are not entirely in control of ourselves; so often the better side of our nature fails to regulate and control the selfish and destructive side. We believe that in some abstract sense we have the freedom to choose between right and wrong, but in the reality of the struggle within our heart we often find ourselves wanting. Whether it’s in that little rush of blood to the head as we see the light change to amber, whether it’s in the more-or-less subtle ways in which we take more than our fair share, whether it’s in the lies we tell others and even ourselves in order to gain some imagined advantage… as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
At Christmas each year we celebrate the opposite of selfishness. We celebrate the One who comes not to take but to give; the One who is pure gift; the One who empties and humbles Himself that we might have fulness of life. The One in whom all times are held is born in a moment. The One by whom and through who and for whom all things were made becomes a part of His creation. The Word of God becomes a speechless baby. This is the opposite of selfishness, this is self-offering, self-emptying, self-giving; this is the most profound compassion.
And that self-offering and that compassion is not only for Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but it is also for us here and now. This night, in this Holy Sacrament we have gathered to celebrate and receive; this night, in the sacred fellowship we enjoy as Christ’s body, the Church, in the power of the Holy Spirit; this night we seek the compassion of the Lord Jesus to help us in the struggle against the dark side of our natures. Jesus continues to offer Himself for us, He continues to intercede with the Father for us, He is with us to help us when we turn to Him, He offers His own self as our spiritual food.
The good news of great joy is for us just as for the shepherds. We will find the Lord Jesus no longer in the manger at Bethlehem but here at this very altar. He offers Himself to us; may we offer ourselves to Him this night, and in His the strength of His compassion may we seek to bring His peace and goodwill to those around us, and His light to those in darkness, and His compassion to those who need it most… and in my particular case, some respite to my fellow road-users.
To Our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, be all praise and glory, with the +Father and the Holy Spirit, now and unto ages of ages. Amen