Christmas Sermon 2022

This is the sermon that I preached at Midnight Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow for 2022.

This was reported in the Herald here:

And in the Daily Record here:

Why is it always night?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

She said, “I don’t get it. Why is it always night?”

“What?” I said.

We were just yards from Times Square buzzing with people. A space that never gets dark, lit perpetually by vast garish advertising slogans bidding all the world to come and buy.

But in the church there was dimmed lighting and the whiff of incense and a dark blue ceiling with stars painted overhead. I felt right at home but they were the only stars to be seen for miles around.

The service was about to begin.

“I just don’t get it” my friend said, gesturing upwards with her eyes. “Why is it so common to have stars painted over the altar? Why is it always night in so many churches?”

One of the things that unites so many of the readings that we have at this time of the year is that something seems to be going on in the sky. Whether it is the shepherds experiencing angels glorifying God in the highest or the Magi from the East following a star, one of the ways that the biblical writers tell that something was up is that all the characters have their eyes on the heavens. Even John’s beloved prologue, our gospel tonight, devoid of ox and ass, stable and inn and all the characters of the nativity is insistent that the light has come. And the light shone in the darkness and the darkness has never
put it out.

Now Christmas is a time of magic and mystery and of gift giving. And so I bestow upon you all right now, the ability to travel through time and space and witness the progress of a weary couple making their way to Bethlehem. A donkey carries one of them.

They are familiar to us all. We know exactly who they are.

But as darkness falls, though they’ve each heard the whispers of angels, they don’t know just how their story is going to unfold.

Darkness falls quickly in the Middle East. It can suddenly become cold.

As they look up they undoubtedly see stars above their heads. With no electric light around, the sky would have been darker. The stars would have been more spectacular.

A starlit sky is the backdrop to how we imagine Bethlehem.

It isn’t just churches that have stars painted on their ceilings. Sometimes you find them in synagogues and mosques and even on the ceilings of Turkish baths.

In so many places, the night sky is painted to show us the very holy of holies.

The stars are above us here. And why not? For this is the place in which we celebrate that God enters the world – Christ born in flesh and blood. And this is the place where we enter into that same drama as Christ is born to us also in bread and wine.

Why not celebrate that drama here? Or in any of the churches of the world. For though Christ was born but once in a borrowed room in Bethlehem, that same Christ is born thousands upon thousands and
thousands of times as Christ is born in our hearts as we draw near to God and God draws near to us.

The stars mark the holy of holies – even stars that have a rocket painted amongst them as ours have.

And this birth is always celebrated at night. But this birth means that it is always daytime in God’s world. The night will never overwhelm the light of day.

No matter the depth of the darkness, the light has come. No matter how hard we find it to find hope and love and laughter, God’s love has shone into this world. No matter the extent of human misery and meanness, God’s tenderness towards the world radiates from that manger through time and space and circumstance and is utterly, utterly real.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world.

In the depths of this winter, there is much that could make us feel miserable. I find it difficult to believe that government policy on asylum could be even worse than it was a year ago. And yet… the current proposals to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for “processing” and settlement remind me just how sinful human beings can be.

The Rwanda asylum policy may be legal but it is immoral

But faith isn’t about how bad things are. It really does celebrate how good God is.

The birth that we celebrate teaches us that there is always hope, always the possibility of change. God changes the whole cosmos by coming at night to Bethlehem. And as religious people I think we are called to collaborate with a God who doesn’t ever seem to give up on this world or write it off. There is always hope.

Now, I just gave you the power to swoop backwards and forwards though time and see things fresh and new.

Come with me as I leave the church with its starry ceiling and walk back out through Times Square and along Forty Second Street finding my way home through the city that never sleeps.

At every road junction in midtown Manhattan at the moment, a religious group has put up stickers on the back of the traffic lights that you see as you stand on the sidewalk waiting to cross the traffic. They
simply say, “Messiah has come”.

Now, they are not put there by a Christian group. They are put there by a very small group which claims to have found a Messiah who has lived within our lifetimes.

I remember that this night not because I think that they were right. But because those stickers made me think about what any of us should do if we suddenly discovered that we knew where the Messiah had was to be found.

For that is our claim tonight. In this birth in Bethlehem, we believe the Messiah has come. Not the kind of Messiah anyone expected. We find tonight a Messiah who is vulnerable. A Messiah who is defenceless. A
Messiah who gurgles.

If we believe in this babe, what shall we do? The light of heaven shines on our faces as we gaze at the saviour of the world in the Christmas Crib.

Christmas shows us that God can do anything.

And we are made in the image and likeness of God.

The love God has for us has been given to us to share.

Stars are above us. Shepherds and animals and a puzzled, exhausted pair of parents are beside us.

Anything is possible now. For the Word has became flesh and lived among us.

What has come into being in him is life, and the life is the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.


Post Christmas

A big thank you to everyone who helped get things ready for Christmas. The cathedral looked stunning, the choir sang magnificently throughout and everything that was supposed to happen did happen. Like others (Gadgetvicar and +David amongst them), I can report that numbers were up. Indeed, they were up significantly for all the services over Christmas. At Midnight Mass, we had to bring extra chairs in.

Favourite moments for me were:

  • The arrival of the Magi – a couple of groups of Chinese students turned up at midnight mass, some of whom had never been to a Christian service before. They gazed and gazed in wonder. Not the first time I have known this happen.
  • The anthem at midnight mass – the one about it being so wonderful that even the animals could worship. All was still, the lights were lowered and everyone had their own little light shining in the darkness. (Who needs to go to a Barry Manilow concert?).
  • The person who murmured, “Thank you father, thank you for the maniple…” thus proving what we have known all along – that the maniple is an evangelistic tool of the first order.
  • “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” at the Carol Service. And no, I don’t know what it means, but it brings a happy tear to the eye.