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 or undignified. Yet we cannot escape it. Our primordial anxiety lurks under a thin surface of rational sophistication, ready to greet us mockingly when opportunities arise; when darkness makes us shiver.
In our part of the world, we do what we can to eliminate the dark. We invest torrential currents of energy to generate light everywhere. So committed are we to keeping lights burning that we rarely feel the real darkness of the night, the kind of darkness we find in rural West Africa, say, as I did earlier this year. There, the night descends quickly like a blanket thrown from on high, making the sun (which a moment before shone brightly) seem like a candle blown out at will. That kind of darkness, the darkness our ancestors knew and our subconscious remembers, clings to our skin. It wraps us up, making the familiar world around us seem menacing and strange. It is ill to be alone in such darkness. We sense a need for comfort and companionship, for someone to cry out, ‘I am here’. Not even our obsession with artificial light keeps us from facing traces of this fear from time to time. We may know it in the night when, waking up in darkness, perhaps 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.
Such experiences, disagreeable though they are, are useful. For how else can we understand the significance of the mystery we are gathered here, in the 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 drawn and the television 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 of dawn. They alone know what it is like to long for the morning star.
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 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 cultural and ethnic unity. Wars were frequent, poverty rampant. Into this decadent, tired, fraught reality, the light of Christ seeped. It rose like a slow, Nordic dawn.
Seeing by that 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 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 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 and free us, and so to make us bearers of freedom and comfort. Christmas is not a fairy tale. It affirms the historicity of our faith. God has become man; 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 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, kept alive, 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.