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Home Who's who Bishops The Bishop of Salisbury Sermons, articles, and speeches Christmas Midnight Mass 2014

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Christmas Midnight Mass 2014

by Michael Ford last modified 25 Dec, 2014 06:01 PM

The Bishop preached at Salisbury Cathedral on 24 December 2014.

Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-20

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2.15)

John Tavener’s ‘God is with Us’ is one of the great proclamations of the Christian Gospel. The Christmas story gets told in many and various ways – in words and music and art – such as the cathedral crib and this year Bruce Munro’s  Star, Morse Code illuminated over the cathedral’s cross-shaped font leading the Magi to Bethlehem. Across the Diocese the story gets told just about everywhere – in schools, and village halls, at home and in the High Street as well as in churches and cathedrals. 

In Salisbury there is a tradition on Christmas Eve that the Bishop has lunch with the Choristers. Today I asked two of them what makes a good sermon – they hear lots – and was told that a good beginning is essential. After lunch I told them stories about Christmas, gave the Headmaster a bottle, wished them all a Happy Christmas and half way home remembered that I still had a pocket full of gold coins I was supposed to have given them as a Christmas box to thank them for their singing. I hope you are still listening but I’ll sort it out tomorrow morning after the service. I suppose there are versions of this going on all over: trying to find ways that work more or less well of responding to the generosity of God by being generous with each other.

This year I’ve been to Carol Services at a football club, in prison and at a hospice.  In each of these very different places the Christmas story gives light and hope. It shouldn’t be a surprise; there’s something here for everyone. 

Joseph and Mary, a carpenter and young woman, travelled to Bethlehem. So Jesus was born in David’s town, not in Jerusalem the big city and centre of power. They were dependent on the hospitality of an innkeeper. Ordinary people trusted by God to play their part.  

The first to hear the good news of the birth of Jesus were shepherds. They were out on the hills around Bethlehem, working men not able to keep all the religious laws, not settled, and not quite trusted by the folk in town.  They were the first to come to see the baby Jesus in whom we see God.  

He is for all the world. That’s the story of the magi, wise men from the east, Gentiles not Jews, Persians, modern Iran. The love of God is for everyone.

This year quite a few Carol services have included readings from soldier’s diaries about the Christmas Truce a hundred years ago in the First World War. They have told of Fritz and Tommy getting out of the trenches to talk with one another, smoke cigarettes, play football and sing carols. For a few hours on Christmas Day they recognised the humanity of the enemy they were trying to kill, and in doing so they found their own humanity as well. 

That’s what we want most of all, to discover in this story about God in a baby what it is be human. This is a story that makes a difference and invites a response.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2.15)

In October Fr Gerard W Hughes died in Bournemouth. Gerry was a Roman Catholic Jesuit, one of the great spiritual guides of our time.  In his last book ‘Cry of Wonder’, published a week or two before he died, he said:

“We are in a severe crisis today, not just of the church, but of the whole human race. We have seen wonderful technical development, but we have become unhinged. We have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do. It’s a most vicious illness: it faces us with annihilation.”

That is very serious: that we have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do.

Last May I was in Bethlehem with a group of pilgrims. We went to the shepherds fields, to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Jesus was here or hereabouts. But the place that made the greatest impact was just outside a tourist shop where the Separation Wall divided Palestinians from Israelis and soldiers stood with guns. 

There are some 400 conflicts worldwide, 20 of them wars, more than at any time since the end of the Second World War. According to the United Nations last year over 50 million people were displaced by conflict for the first time since WWII. Half of those forced to flee were children.

The babe of Bethlehem is said to be the Prince of Peace foretold by Isaiah and we are invited to respond to him.  

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2.15)

A few weeks ago a report was published by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger. Our Salisbury MP played a very significant part in this and as the Church in this Diocese we contributed evidence from our experience in one of the most prosperous parts of the country. The report is only partly about the rise of food banks, of which they say there are now more than 800 across the country. It addresses things such as low pay, debt, the impact of welfare reform and of delays in the payment of benefits to people who have nothing to fall back on. It highlights the 15 million tonnes of food wasted each year in a society in which 3.5 million children live in poverty and well over a million people have at times been dependent on food banks in the last year.  

The underlying issue is about what sort of society we want to be, how we belong with one another at a time when there is a great deal of concern about the increasing gap between rich and poor.  

As a country we are struggling to answer questions about our identity as people who are English, British, European and Global. Again, this is about how we belong together. I sat in a farm house in West Dorset facing a window with a vista on to a wonderful landscape in which there was hardly another house in sight. The person talking to me, who lives internationally, told me that the country is overcrowded. In that context it was laughable. In this context of our Christmas celebrations it sounds uncomfortably close to there being no room at the inn. Charity begins at home but it does not stop at home.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2.15)

The Christmas story involves ordinary people and asks some very searching questions about who we are and what we want – life, health, community, peace in all its fullness. 

And if there is truth in this story of the baby, it connects words and actions and has the power to transform lives, overcome conflicts, make peace and show us what it is to be truly human with each other. 

We will want to tell this story in every way we can, in every place, for the love of God.

I hope you and all whom you love will have a blessed and very Happy Christmas. 

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2.15)

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