Christmas Day 2011
Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
On this Christmas Day, in this 400th anniversary year of the King James’ Bible, I quote my text from that translation. It tells of the song of the angels:
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men….”
Luke 2.13 & 14
Christmas is, supremely, the season of song, of melodies. From far too early on in the year, Christmas music is there, infusing the ordinariness of our lives, and the extraordinary pressures that many are under. Sitting in a restaurant the other day I was amused at the random shuffle of the song choice: Mama was kissing Santa Claus after Adeste Fideles; and the Little Drummer Boy came hot on the heels of Away in a Manger; and someone tweeted, if God is a God of love why does he allow Mistletoe and Wine on the radio every Christmas?
Early today I was listening again to the 1970s Billy Joel hit (his signature song, in fact) – Piano Man. The song is about a piano player called Bill in a lounge bar. As he’s hammering out the songs on the piano he’s looking around at everyone in the bar: the old man over there – ‘Son, can you play me a memory’ he asks “I’m not sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.’ There’s John, the bartender – ‘there’s some place that he’d rather be.’ There’s the waitress ‘practicing politics’ as she chats with the customers. Then there’s a businessman ‘ sharing a drink called loneliness and getting slowly stoned.’ With those there are some of the bar’s regulars known well to the pianist: Paul – ‘the real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife’ and Davey the US Navy sailor, the manager who smiles – ‘the crowd is pretty good for a Saturday night.’ They all have one thing in common – they want the pianist to help them forget about life for awhile and so they sing-a-long style to his tune:
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight,
Well we’re all in the mood for a melody,
And you’ve got us feeling alright.
It could be any of us in that sing-along-lounge sitting near that piano man: with our hopes, any unfilled dreams, our anxieties and concerns – the whole of our humanity. Here we are at another Christmas in far from easy days for many. This is truly a time when, if my pastoral work is anything to go by, we are ‘all in the mood for a melody.’ I remember making representations to a Government minister in a meeting in Spring 2009. ‘I promise you I will sort that out when everything is OK again in two years time.’ But we are still here. We all know the stories and, more important, we know the people whose stories they are. It could be any of us ourselves. I’m sure we all feel that we could do with some brighter days; that it’s our turn be cut some slack; and we would love, for once, to see that proverbial tunnel which supposedly has light at its end. We are all in the mood for a melody.
And in the midst of all that we come here to celebrate Christmas. The wonderful carol services again this year in wonderful melody and in traditional readings have drawn us into the familiar rhythm of the Christmas story, the incarnation of the Word of God, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, the star who leads us to himself.
This morning what solace and strength – what good news – can we draw on from the melodies in today’s readings?
There’s a sudden outburst of song in what we heard from Isaiah. The reality of God – God’s presence and what God does – bursts in on the hearers and they sing a song of joy to celebrate God’s glory. It starts with a solo – the messenger who announces peace and brings good news. The messenger soloist is joined by a few others – the watchmen who lift their voices and sing for joy. And then the whole choir joins in the song: the very ruins of the destroyed city join in. Those ruins are , of course, the people and how they are feeling and what they have experienced – the desolate place of disappointment, surrender, destitution and loneliness – those damaged places are invited to break forth into song because of what God has done, and is doing.
In the psalm, the people of God are again invited to break into melody: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song – for he has done marvellous things.” The time of exile is over and it is time to thank God. Here again the singing is happening in the mucky reality of human predicament: the ruined city and the fallout of years in exile when everything has to be rebuilt, and when there’s no option but to make a fresh start. In spite of everything they are going through the people are invited to sing – and to sing because of the good news of God’s presence and solidarity with them.
At the dramatic heart of the Christmas story is the melodic song of the angels to the shepherds:
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
1And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And it ends
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men….”
This is announcement of the glory of God – the divine presence.
This is the glory Saint John refers to in today’s Gospel when he says: “We have seen his glory.”
I stretch my melodic theme by noting that some scholars suggest that these opening words of John’s Gospel were originally penned as a hymn. Saint John reflects philosophically on the meaning of all this: the Word of God. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ This is the new creation. All things came into being through him. This is life itself. This life is the light. The darkness can never put out that light. When we receive him we become children of God. This Jesus – this Jesus is the Word. He lived among us for a time – seeing him we have seen God (‘the imprint of God’s very being’, the writer to the Hebrews says). ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’
Now all of that should be music to our ears in our own times. Christmas speaks to us afresh in every time and place its message of hope and reassurance: ‘we’re all in the mood for a melody.’ This is God’s presence and solidarity with us, in the words of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Advent, ‘wherever life pours ordinary plenty.’ Yes wherever life pours ordinary plenty God is with us – Emmanuel.
And that is satisfying and good enough, as far as it goes. To leave it at that is to be smug! What are we going to do with it? It is meant also to be a message of transformation – personal change, radical choice, even social and political change. Whenever angels sing in the Hebrew Scriptures it is a sign of the new creation – the restoration of the covenant with God that renews the earth. The song of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus are making exactly such a world-changing, transforming announcement.
The question then is: how can we – as individuals and as a Church – be channels and conduits of that transformation? As followers of the baby of Bethlehem, we are followers too of the radical teacher, the Jesus of Good Friday and the Christ of Easter. We are carriers of the light, which the darkness cannot put out.
And yet something disturbs me in all of this. Why is it that, all too often, so many people around us do not have that experience of some Christians or of the churches? Why do so many experience a church which, in spite of the love of Christ and in his love, fails to put its arms around them or to give them a shoulder to lean or doesn’t stand alongside them? Why is it that all too often the good news is used to batter and bruise rather than to heal and reconcile? Why do some seem so content to love what to other minds seems to be a loveless and cheerless Jesus? Such a Jesus, devoid of grace, is surely a contradiction in terms. These are big and controversial questions, but they are, I fear, at the heart of many of the choices and issues facing the Churches in our time.
So, this Christmas, in this small part of the Church, I urge you, in the words of St John’s ‘hymn’, to remember that you have been given power to be God’s children, to draw strength, courage and resolve from the Word made flesh who lived for awhile among us; we have seen his glory – and that presence was one of grace and truth. His message is one of transforming love. These things are the very light which the darkness can never put out. In the name of Christ and for the love of Jesus, let us all be carriers of that light. Let us hold it for each other and for those around us.
With joy then, in the mood for a melody, we add our voices in this Eucharist to the song of the multitude of the heavenly host:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men….”