Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Love came down on Christmas Day

A Christmas sermon

by Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I suppose you’re all “carol-ed” out at this stage.

For me, they all began with the Advent Carol Service for the theological college at the beginning of the month in Zion Parish Church. But for many of there have also been the parish carol services, the school carol services, the cathedral carol services, and the carol service in Marlay Park on Saturday afternoon. There have been carols with Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Ryan Tubridy and every other broadcaster.

To add to them all, one evening last week we also went to the Carol Service in Orlagh, the Augustinian retreat house in the hills just above Ballycullen and Knocklyon.

It was a cold and crisp but bright and beautiful night. The stars filled the night sky as I peered out the chapel window.

And as I looked out over the city, those words of the Prophet Isaiah came to life, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” [Isaiah 9: 2]. It was as though the lights right across Dublin City and Dublin Bay were their own star-filled galaxies spreading across one more beautiful part of God’s whole creation, from the Dublin foothills, across the bay to Howth Head and perhaps even – if I let my imagination run away a little that starry, starry night – as far as the Mountains of Mourne in Co Down.

We are partners in God’s creation, and I felt that evening, that I was living somewhere very beautiful within God’s wondrous cosmos.

That beautiful vision from the hills across the star-filled sky and above the light-filled city filled me with a sense of the beauty of the Kingdom of God.

But then, for a moment, I wondered about another star-filled night. It was one of the carols that made me think of the shepherds who sat in the dark on the hills above David’s Royal City, Bethlehem. As they looked across the city lights that night, why were they terrified [Luke 2: 8-10] rather than being filled with wonder and awe? And then, once the angels had spoken, did they see the city and the world beneath them in all their beauty? Were they already waiting in hope – a hope that lets all of us know that we when we are welcome at the Christ-child’s crib in the stable in Bethlehem, and we are equally welcome before the throne of Christ in his kingdom? [Titus 2: 13.]

When we are called to knell before Christ the Child we are also called to knell before Christ the King.

On the first Christmas, the first visitors to the place where Jesus was born were shepherds and Magi. Not the Mayor of Bethlehem or King Herod from neighbouring Jerusalem … if the first visitors were going to be local people, they were going to be shepherds. They were local Jewish people, but they were on the margins of society, manual labourers, shift-workers, out on the edges of the city, poorly paid and kept in the dark. If the first visitors were going to be powerful kings or wise scholars, then they were not going to be the king in his palace in Jerusalem or worldly-wise Sadducean priests from the Temple, but once again people from the margins, magi from the east, where the Children of Israel had been exiled and had suffered a few generations earlier; people whose religious views and practices were suspect and superstitious.

Those first visitors represent the ignorant and the wise, the religiously naïve and the religious sophisticates. They are manual labourers and the bookish scholars, they are Jews and Gentiles, they are the poor and the rich. They continue to remind us today that Christ came to all and to everyone, to be a “great joy” for the whole world. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” [Titus 2: 11].

Christ’s coming brings with it is a promise of hope not just for you and for me, not even for those who share our beliefs and values, not even for the whole world, but for the whole of God’s created order.

As an item on Sky news reminded us last night, both Saint Mark’s Gospel and Saint John’s Gospel are without any Christmas story. In those two Gospels, there are no stars above Bethlehem, no shepherds on the hillside, no three wise men following a star. However, Saint John’s Gospel keeps our focus on what really is at the heart of the Christmas message. He tells us that God so loved – not me, not us, not the church, not even humanity, not even (as too many of our Bibles translate it) that God so loved the world … but God so loved the cosmos, that he sent his only son …

God’s love is bigger than us. God’s love is bigger than the Church. God’s love is bigger than our world. God’s love is sent in Christ this Christmas morning to fill the whole created order, the whole cosmos, with love.

And as I sat looking out over the hills and the city and up into the starry sky and that great cosmos, I was brought back down to earth when someone read a lesson that was a parody on a well-known New Testament passage on the centrality of Christian love and Christmas love.

This Christmas version of I Corinthians 13 was received by the Augustinian community at Orlagh by email, and the source is unknown. But it was a good reminder of how love must be at the heart of all we do in our families this Christmas:

If I decorate my house perfectly with holly and ivy, strands of twinkling lights and shiny silver balls,
but do not show love to my family,
I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cakes and mince pies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table for the Christmas dinner,
but do not show love to my family,
I’m just another cook.

If I work in the Simon shelter or soup kitchen, sing carols in the nursing home and give all I have to charity,
but do not show love to my family,
it profits me nothing.

If I trim the Christmas tree with silver angels and pretty little snowflakes, attend a myriad of office holiday parties, and sing carols with the choir,
but do not focus on Christ,I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband or wife. Love is kind,
even if it is harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has co-ordinated Christmas china, table runners and place mats.

Love doesn’t yell at the kinds to get out of the way,
but is thankful that they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return,
but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things;
Love never fails;
The X-Box and video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust;
But giving the gift of love will endure.

Happy Christmas, and lots of love to you and all yours.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached on Christmas Day, 25 December 2007, at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham