Something of the Night
Christmas. Fr Malcolm McMahon is not afraid of the dark: the Bishop of Nottingham preaches for Midnight Mass of Christmas.
Not many people love the night. It can be a time of fear and uncertainty. Sometimes it is a time of death. Scientists tell us that our body rhythms are at their slowest at about 4.00 am, deep into the night.
When I took up my first appointment as a transport engineer, after three years study, a degree and two years graduate training, I was sent to work nights. I couldn’t believe it at first. It seemed to me that I shouldn’t be working at night; that was for other people, not for me. There was no doubt that I was scared – driving around East London after midnight takes some courage – and more courage was needed to enter bus garages choc-a-bloc with buses to make my way to the maintenance area to supervise the work. Homeless people would be asleep on these vehicles; occasionally they would be disturbed and make a run for it. At other times there would be drunks or fights to deal with – and then just when I was at my wits’ end one of the lads would hand me a cup of tea sweetened with condensed milk, and the world suddenly brightened up.
I couldn’t get on with the night. Darkness was not my friend. Yet my friend Dave loved the night. He was a London cabbie until he died and to him London at night was a wonderful place. Of course there was less traffic, he could move faster, and even though the fares were few and far between, they generally travelled further and were talkative. All Dave’s best stories came from his conversations with the people who inhabited the night. Dave came alive at night.
So the night is a time for work for many people, like the shepherds in tonight’s Gospel. It can also be a place of fear or peace. It can be a time of sleep or of creativity.
A popular way of describing a person we do not fully trust is to say that there is something of the night about him, or he has a dark side. That is how people thought of the shepherds to whom the angels revealed the good news of Jesus’s birth. It is very unfair, but people did not know these night workers who lived on the fringe of society. They probably smelt of the animals they tended and wouldn’t be very welcome in company. They were, in a sense, dark people, and because of this they would be associated with crime, violence and drunkenness, and they would probably be accused of any local crime – a robbery of a house or theft of an animal.
There are many people in our time whom we accuse unfairly. Let me name just a few: the travelling community, the homeless, asylum seekers and immigrants. God revealed his Son, Jesus, to people like them. That is astounding in itself. He revealed himself to the uneducated and socially disadvantaged first. The educated and wealthy – that is to say, the magi – came later. Maybe God is saying something to us now through those less fortunate than ourselves? After all they are created by him, and made in his likeness.
You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see that in our time a lot of dark things take place at night: drunkenness, being sick on the street, rowdiness, drug dealing and fights. We also know that a lot of dark things happen during the day: shady dealing takes place in our banks and financial institutions – perhaps not dishonesty, but big rewards for doubtful gains. At the same time others are unemployed and their personal light dims, their self-esteem is damaged as prospects of work and of providing properly for their family fade.
Let us remember two moments, Jesus’s birth and Jesus’s death, that took place in the dark: Jesus was born during the night watch of the shepherds, and as he died a great darkness came over the earth. God’s love made visible in Jesus Christ promises us new life, a time of light not just in the darkness of winter but also in the darkness of our world. His redemptive death shows us how sacrifice can be redemptive, how it can give us new hope, a new life.
We know that the Light of Christ burns within us – not just in the cribs in our home or in the fairy lights of our decorations. Christ’s light is a true light that overcomes our sense of fear, which naturally goes with the dark, and warms us and shows us our path in life. With Christ in us we can befriend the darkness and no longer be afraid. The night is no longer a place of despair or destruction but a place of creation and re-creation.
May the Christ Child be a light in your life this night and throughout the coming year. May you and your families rejoice in a blessed a Christmas.