Singing All Night
Christmas. Fr Richard Ounsworth preaches on the three Christmas gospel readings.
As editor of this website, it is my job to ask friars, when their turn comes up, to provide a sermon. In the case of Christmas, they always ask which set of readings I would like them to preach on, and the reply is always whichever set they like. ‘Even all of them, if you like’, I add.
So far, no-one has taken up that challenge, and I can see why! But I thought it would be interesting to try to say something at least about all three Christmas gospels. We begin with Midnight Mass, and the story of the birth of Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem, told in a very matter-of-fact way: St Luke at his pithiest. There is a striking contrast, in fact, between the humble ordinariness of Christ’s birth and the dramatic scene when the angel of the Lord, and the whole heavenly host, appear to the shepherds in the nearby countryside.
In fact, we leave the angels singing the Gloria until the Dawn Mass, when the story is taken up again with the departure of the angels. The shepherds then dash off to see the child for themselves. I rather like the idea that the angels are left singing all night by the liturgical arrangement of these two gospels. It reminds us that the heavenly choirs are joined in perpetual adoration of God, that heaven never sleeps; and that our participation in the liturgy, such as when we sing the Gloria at Mass, is a share in the eternal worship of the angels – the very life of heaven itself.
The shepherds, though, don’t seem to pause to reflect on the extraordinary privilege they have been granted of witnessing the heavens opened: they go straight into town to ‘see this thing that has happened’. And it is this – the apparently ordinary birth of a child in inauspicious circumstances – that really impresses them. A woman, her husband, her child. This is what causes them to go back ‘glorifying and praising God.’
Now of course, the birth of any baby is a remarkable and beautiful thing; the love between husband and wife, or between parent and child, is truly a sign that points us towards the source of that love which is God himself, the mystery of love at the heart of all existence. If we are able to see a new-born child, or witness the love that passes between two people, and not be moved to tears of joy, then it is because life has hardened our hearts too much.
But the shepherds know that in this particular child, in this particular time and place, they are encountering something much more. The angels have told them that this child, wrapped in swaddling cloths, is Christ, the Lord, the Saviour of the world. Their little glimpse of heaven has encouraged them to go back to look at the world with new eyes, to see the real meaning of events that look, outwardly, perfectly ordinary.
And this brings me to the Gospel for the Daytime Mass – the beginning of the Gospel of St John. Whereas St Luke takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life, St John takes us not so much back in time as into eternity. He shows us the eternal relationship of the Word to the Father; he grants us, in other words, a glimpse of the very life of God, a glimpse of heaven.
But in the middle of granting us this glimpse, John also takes us into the human history of Jesus, beginning with his heralding by John the Baptist. He reminds us that in the earthly life of Jesus we see the eternal life of God – in other words, the eternal love of God – played out in something that looks, outwardly, quite ordinary.
A child is born. His mother loves him. Her husband loves and cherishes them both. This ought always to be a powerfully moving vision, though so many of us are hardened to the beauty of ordinary human love. But those of us who have been given a glimpse of heaven, who have indeed shared in the life of heaven, can see that this particular child is the perfect revelation of divine love.
And if we can see that, then we can look at the whole world again with our eyes opened by the message of an angel to the beauty of love that shines like morning dew over the whole earth, today and every day.
To all our readers, from all the Friars, a very happy Christmas!