Words on the Word
Christmas Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1-7: The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.
Titus 2:11-14: A people that would have no other ambition except to do good.
Lk 2:1-14: And the glory of the Lord shone.
Fear of the night and of darkness is an experience that binds men and women of all times and every place together. It creates a complicity between us that we are reluctant to admit, conditioned as we are to consider it childish. Yet we cannot escape it. Primordial anxiety lurks under a thin surface of rational sophistication, ready to greet us with mocking laughter when opportunities arise; when, for one reason or another, we are plunged into darkness and find we shiver.
In our part of the world, we do what we can to eliminate darkness. We invest torrential currents of energy to generate light everywhere. So committed are we to keeping lights burning at all costs that we rarely feel the real darkness of the night, the seemingly total darkness our ancestors knew. Our subconscious remembers it, though, and at some deep level awareness of such darkness clings to our skin, making the familiar world around us seem menacing. It is scary to be alone in darkness. We sense a need for companionship, for someone to cry out, ‘I am here’. Not even our obsession with artificial light keeps us from facing traces of this fear. We may know it in the middle of the night when, waking up in a dark room after a bad dream, we do not know where we are. We may know it during a power cut, when a sense of acute powerlessness makes us anxious and angry.
Experiences such as these, disagreeable though they are, are useful. How else can we understand the significance of the mystery we are gathered here, in this holy night, to celebrate? ‘The people who walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.’ If we live under the constant glare of fluorescent lights, with curtains closed and the telly on, the sun seems irrelevant. So what if it does not rise? Only people who know the fearful exposure of the night know the relief and joy of dawn. They alone know what it is to long for the sight of the morning star, the harbinger of dawn.
From the beginning of our era, Christians have called upon Christ as the morning star. The Roman liturgy does so still, notably on 22 December when, at Vespers, we sing a variation of the text from Isaiah just read to us. We call on Christ, light from light, to illumine our darkness and pierce death’s compact shadow. Christians of antiquity were conscious of living in a tired, decrepit world. The social order of the Roman empire was breaking up. Vast movements of people from east to west, south to north broke down local culture and ethnic unity. Wars were frequent, poverty was rampant. Into this decadent, tired, fraught reality, the light of Christ seeped gradually. It rose like a slow, Nordic dawn.
As they slowly learnt to see by that light, Christ’s light, people discovered that the stranger is not necessarily an enemy. They learnt that broken trust can be restored, wounds healed, sins forgiven. They learnt, above all, that death has lost its sting. For the child whose birth we celebrate came for this: to engage death in single combat and make it, death, die forever. The light Isaiah saw dimly in the distance has spread everywhere, even to the darkness of the grave.
The astonishing thing, brothers and sisters, is that it has lost none of its power. After two thousand years the light is as bright, as penetrating as ever it was. It still rises with healing in its wings. The prophet foresaw this light in faith’s darkness. The shepherds approached it at night. Let us, too, take heart and draw near. We need not be ashamed of childish fears. It is as a child that God comes to us, to comfort us and free us, and so to make us bearers of freedom and comfort. Christmas is not a sentimental fairy tale. On the contrary, it proclaims the historicity of our faith. It affirms that God has become man; that he has come to dwell with us, to show us a new, divine way of being human.
Into whatever darkness we carry — be it enmity or strife, guilt or shame, hurt or resentment — the light of Christ will shine if we let it. Christ came, St Paul tells us, to ‘purify a people to be his own, that they might have no ambition except to do good’. His light not only restores, it enables. It gives strength to the weak, courage to those who are afraid, health to the sick. It equips ordinary people like you and me to carry the light of hope into hopeless places, to illumine the darkness only God can reach, which resists all our efforts to cancel it with manmade light. Christmas entails a commission. The light has been given us, not only to be admired for a while, then left. It is there to be taken home, to be kept alive, to be used and shared. Throughout the coming year, may the light of Christ continue to shine in our lives as it did on the night of his birth, as it does tonight. Through us, may it spread its peaceful rays far and wide. Amen.
Winter sunrise in Trøndelag. Photograph: Frostingen/Eirik Einarson.