CHRISTMAS EVE MIDNIGHT 2022
‘Bishop Paul, doesn’t it get boring preaching on the same story every year?’ A question I have been asked on several occasions, nearly always in relation to Christmas. Well, ‘No’ is my clear answer, ‘Just look at the content – emperor of a great power, a tyrannical monarch, religious leaders, occupied nation, challenging racial and religious divisions, ordinary working people, social outcasts, strange philosophers, a scandalous teenage pregnancy, events in the night sky, refugees, homelessness, hospitality, obscure and unimportant places and people, a miraculous birth – how much more would you like? And all this fails to mention the very heart of the story that this is about - God stepping into the world to offer forgiveness, hope, and salvation to humanity.’
The challenge is not to be bored by it but to decide just which theme is the right focus each year. It cannot but be wonderful to re-tell this astonishing story. It is the story that never stops speaking to us, challenging us, and giving God’s love to us all.
So where to focus in 2022?
We are seeing a tyrannical ruler of a once great Empire try to destroy millions of innocent lives and a flourishing nation. We know there is a burgeoning worldwide refugee crisis that has been dominated in our own setting by both welcoming those fleeing that conflict and a growing antagonism to those travelling in rubber dinghies to our shores. We have a major cost of living crisis that is pushing more people into poverty and anxiety about food and warmth which emphasises the gap between rich and poor. We have had three Prime Ministers inside the year and the political instability that has attended it. We clearly have a growing unease amongst ordinary working people about what is expected of them and the conditions under which they are employed. Then hovering over it all is a climate and environmental crisis that we seem unable, or unwilling, to face with the serious speed that it requires.
You could name me some more major things that have confronted us – including the Final Report on Child Sex Abuse across our nation and its institutions, including the church; and census results that tell us fewer people hold to the Christian faith than before.
So where do I land?
Well here’s the thing – do those who come to the Midnight Eucharist at Durham Cathedral want to be reminded of the pain and anguish of the world as they set about celebrating Christmas with their friends, family, neighbours, or quietly alone? Or do they want a gentle word? But what about those who want to read what the Bishops are ‘preaching from their pulpits’ this Christmas? Those who search for us being deemed controversial, or virtue signalling, or simply out of touch?
The answer of course is that as in all sermons I try and listen to the voice of God. What is it that God might want us to hear in 2022? Given that God was sending out a message through the birth of Jesus to the whole world for all time I don’t think God has stopped wanting to speak to us as we recall the unique event that leads to the salvation of creation.
Earlier this week I was at St Aidan’s, Hartlepool. I chatted with some of the wonderful volunteers who run their food and other provisions every Thursday morning. I talked with people as they patiently queued to collect food, toiletries, and some extra Christmas gifts. I looked into people’s eyes and heard the tone of their voices. There was so much sorrow and anxiety. I visited the new community hub being prepared in Seaham and talked with the staff and clergy about all the plans they have for the New Year. There have been many other conversations with people across the region, and from all walks of life. I have listened to the news, and comment on various radio stations. We have all been concerned about the impact of the different strikes being undertaken, reluctantly by most.
Amongst it all this piece of art arrived in the post (show ‘Hope’ picture). This simple piece of art stating baldly ‘Hope’ was made by ‘Love Welcomes, a creative social enterprise that helps refugee women begin to stitch their lives back together. This symbol of hope was created using upcycled lifejackets discarded in Greece, worn by refugees forced to flee their homes.
What those concerned about the cost of living crisis want and need is Hope. What the people of Ukraine want and need is Hope. What refugees and asylum seekers want and need is Hope. What the shepherds outside Bethlehem, social outcasts in many ways, wanted was Hope. What the people of Israel under Roman occupation and Herod’s tyrannical local rule wanted was Hope. What the wise men were seeking was the Hope for the World. What we all want and need is Hope. The simple truth is that the coming of Jesus into the world as a foetus in Mary’s womb, then a baby, then a growing child, then the carpenter of Nazareth, then the travelling teacher and healer, then the crucified one, then the one raised from death and taken up into glory is where true Hope lies.
God shouts to us, through the song of the angels that the shepherds heard, your Saviour has come. God whispers to us, through the gentleness of Mary and Joseph, I am with you, and for you. God speaks to us through the wonder of the true Christmas story, there is Hope and you will find it here in Jesus.
Our deepest human need is that of being loved by our Maker. Our most profound need is to know that we are forgiven, welcomed and accepted by God – and in Jesus this is the Hope that we find. Jesus comes not only for us in our human need. His death on the Cross is for the whole of creation. His resurrection offers hope for the earth.
Having discovered this Hope we are impelled not only to tell the story and invite others to discover it too, but to be people who seek to bring hope to all at every level of need, in all walks of life, and for the planet. So we have to be those who then work to bring hope to the anxious, the hungry, the fearful, the refugee, the prisoner, the sad and lonely. We do so by meeting the immediate need. But we also must seek to create a more just and equal society and world. So we will always speak up for the most vulnerable, and help them speak up for themselves. We will work for hope for our climate, environment and biodiversity. This will always include challenging the rich and the powerful, including ourselves, who have the capacity to make things change. We will in every way seek to be Hope bringers to the world.
So my friends, sisters and brothers, gathered here in Durham Cathedral this wondrous Christmas night, and those who listen online, or read these words later, I hope you sense that I might have at least heard God’s voice a little bit once again through the glorious truth of God becoming human in Jesus. I trust that you hear God’s message of hope for you personally in your own relationship with God, and thus with other people and the planet. I hope you hear God’s message of hope for those most vulnerable in our society and world – the hungry and dispossessed, the sorrowful, the homeless, the refugees and prisoners, and the isolated lonely. Hear the hope for yourself – and then be a bringer of God’s hope to others. Be like the shepherds who spread the good news to all. Be like the angels and sing out the praises of God. Be like Jesus himself and give yourself for the sake of others.
Sisters and brothers there is Hope this Christmas – and it is found in Jesus born in Bethlehem, now reigning in glory.