Sermon: Midnight Mass, 24 December 2018, St John the Divine

Some years ago, the clock up in the spire of St. John’s was out of order – and therefore silent – for many months, until it was eventually repaired and we were able once more to hear the familiar sound of the hours chiming.  One or two locals, who had either forgotten there ever was a clock up there at all, or who had moved into the area since it was last working, began to complain that it was disturbing their sleep.  Well, I suppose it was yet another noise to accompany the trains, the planes, the sirens and the traffic on the A316!  Quite soon now, the clock will strike midnight – perhaps the most evocative midnight of the year, along with New Year’s Eve.  The Christmas spirit often serves to give us permission to act out of character and do different or unusual things.  What on earth are we doing in church at this time of night?  After all, there are services here the whole year through, on Sundays and in the week, but this is the only one when we celebrate in this way at midnight.  It’s as if we all want a moment to pause.  The busyness which has crowded our lives and our minds these last weeks is now all done with, and the special day lies ahead – but not quite yet. Since we are clearly not people to go shopping on the Internet sales at midnight, here we create a rare silence; our Christmas Day begins in the wintry stillness of the midnight hour.  The hour bell will soon enough tell usall that it’s twelve of the clock – and that Christmas, after all the anticipation and preparation, has finally arrived. 

Midnight on any day has a sort of significance, though, doesn’t it?  We tend to think of it, as it says, as the middle of the night. Though it may not technically always be the point furthest from the fading light of dusk or the promise of dawn, we treat it symbolically as the point of deepest darkness.  And so, human imagination has always seen the midnight hour as a time of dread.  In legend and fable, the midnight hour is when things which threaten us are unleashed on the world. It’s the time when spirits and demons are up to no good. At midnight, chaos stalks human society, the ghost of Christmas past is expected, haunting our sleeplessness. At midnight, even death prowls around, and so the innocents among us had best stay indoors. 

But if mythology is not to your taste, then look at it another way. The midnight hour can be when each of us feels at our most vulnerable; when things we might cope with perfectly well in the daylight prey on our minds and become too much for us, whether it be regrets related to the past, or fears about tomorrow or our longer term future. The dead of night can bring a sense of isolation or despair.  If we are struggling with any kind of anxiety or pain, then it’s often in the physical darkness that our lamps of hope burn at their lowest.  And we must acknowledge, even in the midst of our Christmas celebrations, that this year has had more than its fair share of dread and darkness, with continuing devastation in Syria, a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, endless Brexit wrangling, a shocking increase in knife crime on London’s streets, more people existing on the streets, and so the list goes on…These things cast shadows on the world and on humanity and, to some extent or other, we’re all made afraid by the dread of such happenings.  Without doubt, the midnight hour is the place of our fears, of our sense of danger and of our own vulnerability within it all.

Curiously, though, in legend and fable, the midnight hour is also the time of magic and of things changing – sometimes even of mysterious things happening. Carriages turn back into pumpkins, horses into mice, ball gowns into rags.  But equally, elves make shoes to rescue a poor shoemaker from destitution, princesses arrive at castles, and the toys come alive in the toyshop. In the same vein, tradition has it that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals are given the gift of speech – so don’t be too surprised at who – or what – wishes you a merry Christmas as you go home tonight!  No, midnight isn’t only about dread. It’s the threshold between different worlds. We know that it’s the link between one day and the next, but here tonight it’s also the threshold between the events of now and the consequences for all our lives – and for our world – of what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  It’s the time where things get transformed.  This is how Susan Hill, the novelist, describes it:  “It was Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock, when the message was heard on the wind in the trees on the air underground and humming through wires and slipped into dreams…Christmas Eve and twelve chimed the clock on the church in the town on the wall in the hall, when the message was heard. Christmas Eve. And can it be true? And can it be true? Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock when they came to the stable and saw…”

The shepherds who came and indeed saw were used to a world full of dread. It is, after all, why they were in the fields and saw the flight of angels that night. They were protecting their sheep from night-time predators. Hardened men, not gullible or easily shaken, yet terrified by the sight of one world invading another, of the mystery of God coming to earth. But to everyone involved in this story the angels said the same thing: Do not be afraid.  And that same message of the angels rings through the centuries to speak to all our fears and hopes: Don’t be afraid. God knows you’re vulnerable, because in the stable of Bethlehem, God is also vulnerable, and exposed to the realities of what it means to be human in the world.  In this holy midnight, in this birth, divinity enters our humanity.  So, when we feel as if we inhabit our own personal midnight, the place where we feel furthest from the light, the Christmas story tells us we are never alone, as the sky lights up with stars and angels.  

As midnight strikes high above our heads tonight, we celebrate what this child tells us is true about our life: that the source of the starry night, and this fragile planet and its perfectly evolved creatures, counts your life – and the life of all things on earth – as infinitely precious.  This birth is not a guarantee of a problem-free existence or a perfect world, but it does proclaim thepresence of God in the whole of our human experience – our daylight hours and our midnights.  This new birth offers us the potential for transformation, a new way of living.  But it also demands something of us, for it has profound implications for how we live in relation to all those who share our humanity, and how we live in relation to our planet. Tonight, you don’t need to search for, or cry out to, some remote deity, unconnected with real human life, because the deity is here with us, in the fragile form of a human child

“It was Christmas Eve,
on the farm
in the fields
in the streets of the town.
It was Christmas Eve
and twelve of the clock
when the message was heard…
It is true!
It is true!”

Happy Christmas!

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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