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Christmas Day Sermon 2020

by Michael Ford last modified 25 Dec, 2020 05:42 PM

The Bishop preached at Salisbury Cathedral on 25th December 2020.

Gospel: John 1.1-14

“In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” John 1.5

What a relief it has been for those of us who have come to services in the cathedral this week. Even behind masks, in socially distanced chairs, with no congregational singing, no touching, no mingling afterwards, it is an enhanced joy to be here with each other.

In these strangest of times, I wish you and all who join us online, a very Happy and joyful Christmas.

We need good news. The combination of the pandemic and the prolonged trauma of Brexit and the blockage of Dover has been just terrible. A lot is still to be worked out about what it means now for us to be English, British, European though not part of the EU and global it’s good to have got a deal and settled the terms of our trading relationship with the EU.

In relation to the pandemic, I am sure, “It will be over by Christmas” was intended at the time to be encouraging but the echoes of the First World War were deeply discomforting.
‘5 days to see the family’ was a promised Christmas truce that the virus cannot respect.
The hope of a vaccine is serious good news but the mutation of the rapidly spreading virus is unsettling.
The loss of relationships and normal life is something to lament. None of us have any idea when we’re going to be through this and will be able to look back from the other side.

Social isolation has been better for introverts than extroverts.
The change it has forced upon us is making us ask very basic questions about how we live, what it means to be fully human, and why we lived in the very driven way we do.
Some are doing better than others at a time when whole sections of the economy have crashed. What does it mean for us to be in this together and how do we share responsibility for one another?
Some have appreciated the quieter pace it has enforced, have enjoyed time and the local. Others seem busier than ever trying to make things work differently, care for people and maintain our services.
The distressed environment has had a sabbath. Air quality improved, carbon emissions reduced, we were struck anew by the beauty of this precious creation in which we have been set for this brief moment of our lives.

“In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” John 1.5

Whatever we are learning, we don’t want just to go back to things as they were. Some things have got to change.

Mind you, be careful what you wish for. For example, when was the last time you complained that the way we celebrate Christmas is too much, too busy, too consumerist, too big?

Sermons from the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years have nearly always criticised consumerism and sought to proclaim the deeper inner truths of Christmas which are masked by the effervescence of a mid-winter festival. This Christmas is stripped back, simpler, smaller and in some ways better focussed. Who would have thought it possible and what from this will we want to keep?

My parents longed for a simpler, smaller less consumerist Christmas. When we children left home what they said they really wanted to do at Christmas was to go for a picnic somewhere like Christmas Common and eat their sandwiches sitting together in the open air. Wouldn’t that be marvellous in a year in which our usual Christmas celebrations have been so disrupted and we’re mostly not able to meet.

One of the things that has struck me this year is the adaptability of Christianity, which is why it is a great missionary religion taking root in all times and every place. Across Wiltshire and Dorset churches were closed and went online. It took less than 2 weeks for most to learn how to do this.

When our church buildings re-opened many services stayed online in the hybrid way we have now grown used to, as here this morning when we are joined by hundreds beyond those of us physically gathered in the cathedral. They are very welcome, too. In future, do you think we might we go back to not including them? I don’t think so.

My parents went through the terrible ordeal of the Second World War. They came out of it determined to do better. My generation grew up when it seemed that ‘things could only get better’. Underneath that optimism was a collective vision for a better society with a shared commitment to full employment, education, housing, the NHS and a welfare state that cared for everyone. These grew from a Christian understanding but were not an exclusively Christian vision. They are universal aspirations.

Ironically the European project was added on for greater peace and prosperity. That has gone but so has the shared vision and determined commitment to a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘life in all its fullness’ and the common good.

In our enforced isolation the pandemic is teaching us that we depend on each other, live globally and need to care for each other. The care of God’s creation is integral to that. What we need is a new agreed narrative, a vision of social commitment, and Christianity has so much to contribute with an account of what it is to be fully human, to love God and love our neighbours as ourself.

Christmas laid bare is that God is with us, in Jesus, human, earthy, flesh and blood. This love is not sentimental and self-absorbed but sacrificial and self-giving.

This year, with all its hardships and deprivations, I hope we can let the best-ever Christmas find us.

“In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” John 1.5

May you have a very Happy Christmas.

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