Words on the Word
Christmas Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1-7: Every cloak rolled in blood is burnt and consumed by fire.
Titus 2:11-14: The Appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Luke 2:1-14: Peace to people of good will.
‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.’ Light is the predominant, primordial symbol of Christmas. The Church uses it to great effect. We have gathered at the darkest point of the darkest night of the year to be surprised, once more, by a splendid light flaring up as it did at the beginning of time, to transform creation. The symbolism of the Christmas Vigil is unlike that of the Vigil of Easter. Easter shows Christ as the new dawn of a day that will not yield to twilight. What matters this night is the sharpness of contrast, light in the dark. The motif is carried into a range of cherished customs: Advent candles, the lights on Christmas trees, on window sills, before our front door—so many signs that the icy cold of night is dispelled by a flickering warmth.
This language of signs has been hijacked by secular Christmas. The other day, on the Loughborough Road, I met a lorry so ablaze with psychedelic lights it blinded me. Attempts to rebrand Christmas as a ‘festival of lights’, a shopping binge, makes the shining symbol of the season ambiguous. There is all the more reason to focus on the words of the Church’s Collect tonight. It begins with these words: ‘O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendour of the true light’. The accent falls on truth. There’s a discernment to be made. Lights are not all the same. There are counterfeit lights, lights kindled, not to guide, but to mislead. Some floodlit paths lead to places of confusion.
Let us see what criteria our readings provide for us to judge by, that we may be careful, at Christmas above all, not to confound the true Light of Him ‘who is to come’ with lesser lights that may, to some extent, usurp His radiance, but only to peddle falsehood.
The first essential clue is given by Isaiah. When the people that walked in darkness saw light, he tells us, they rejoiced ‘as with joy at the harvest’. True light has substance, it nourishes the hungry. It is like a crop of grain that reassures us: we shan’t starve. Christ our Lord, ‘Light from Light’, comes to us, too, as bread. It has always been meaningful to Christians that Bethlehem, his birthplace, illumined by the star, means literally, ‘House of Bread.’ The true Light that comes into the world arrives, not just to be gazed at and admired, but to be eaten. Bread is made to be shared. We are rightly scandalised by the mere thought of someone hoarding bread. To break bread is a universal gesture of hospitality, so of potential friendship. Beware of lights that carry no joy in their trail and bring no nourishment fit to be shared, apt to multiply, like the seven loaves for the four thousand, according to the number of those who come to huddle in its brightness.
A second hallmark of true light is this: it carries peace. For Isaiah, the light that shines in darkness is of a piece with the Prince of Peace, ‘and of peace there will be no end’. The angels proclaim peace to men of good will. This peace is no vague atmosphere of undisturbed repose. In Scripture, peace is unfailingly dynamic. It is a pledge we receive, a social contract we construct, a fugitive presence to ‘pursue’. We cannot be passive recipients of peace. Peace asks something of us—in fact, it asks a lot. We shall only know the splendour of true light insofar as it descends on us with peace in its wings. Christ is born into our world as a living proposition of peace. He imposes nothing. But he invites us to receive the gift he bears. He urges us to make peace. May each of us hear this call addressed to himself, herself, personally this Christmas. Make peace with God! Make peace with yourself! Make peace with your neighbour! May the reconciliation Christ has won not be for nothing in our lives! The true light is not some some deal God pulls us into with empty promises of instant, automatic satisfaction. It’s the light we need to enter the dark places in our hearts, and there, to clear out the rubbish.
The third characteristic of the true light is its association with glory. At first we may think that glory is, simply, light. To a biblical mind it is more. ‘Glory’ is a property of God, what sets God’s being apart. It is also, as it were, the fingerprint God leaves when he touches something, someone, in our world of matter. The halos that surround the faces of saints on Christmas cards are reflections of God’s glory. We, too, you and I, are called to shine with such brightness. The light Christ brings is no mere temporary comfort. It has the power to renew us from within, to make us light, not by any intrinsic potential of ours, but by God’s astounding will to make us like him, to let us share in his divinity—flesh and blood and dust though we are. Let us rejoice, then, in this light. Let us spread it abroad. Let us draw peace from it, and so be made bright in the image of its glory.