Words on the Word

Christmas Midnight Mass

Isaiah 9:1-7: His name shall be called Prince of Peace.
Titus 2:11-14: Awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God.
Luke 2:1-14: Peace to men who enjoy God’s favour.

The child whose birth we celebrate this night is called ‘Prince of Peace’. From afar, in blazing darkness, Isaiah recognised him as the live sheen of God’s eternal peace. The angels who proclaimed Christ’s coming likewise sang of ‘peace to men who enjoy God’s favour’. Peace is something we long for, an inestimable good. It is wonderful to have it promised to us by the Christmas Gospel. Still, looking at the world we inhabit, do these promises mean anything? In so many places there are wars and rumours of wars. Even as a precarious peace was starting to spread in the exhausted lands of Syria, through which the Magi once caravaned, the withdrawal of US troops threatens to reintroduce violent chaos. A few days ago, the attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg reminded us that terrorist violence can break out anywhere, at any time. Close to home, fears unleashed by drones flying low over Gatwick revealed the precarious state of our peacefulness. What does it mean, then, to carol sweetly about ‘peace on earth’. Can the Gospel be trusted? Or is the Good News fake news?

This question, sprung from the gap between a promise and its seeming unfulfilment, has been asked since the beginning of our faith. It should be taken seriously, not dismissed by bland appeals to a hazy spiritual dimension. You may remember how, in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a poor Jesuit of Farm Street tries to prepare the self-made magnate Rex Mottram for reception into the Catholic Church so that he can marry Julia Flyte and acquire aristocratic lustre? The priest labours to mobilise his convert’s critical faculties, but to little effect. Rex takes it for granted that the Christian faith, for being estimable, has no bearing on everyday life. ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain’’, essays the Jesuit; ‘would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh yes, Father’, answers Rex. ‘But supposing’, the shrewd priest goes on, hoping a spark of intelligence might be provoked, ‘but supposing it didn’t?’ Rex looks blankly at him and says, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it?’

If anyone, with regard to the prophecy of Christ’s peaceful reign, tries to fob you off with this kind of pseudo-explanation, don’t stand for it: it makes a mockery of the incarnation. The question must be approached from a different angle altogether. The passage from Isaiah, remember, begins by evoking a context of brutality. For being ancient, it seems very contemporary: we hear of nations oppressing one another, of grasping greed, of bloodshed, and burning. How does providence intervene? In the person of an infant. Had God intended to slam the violent down and impose his peace, he would have acted differently, brought about some fearful show of strength. Yet the God revealed in Scripture does not operate that way. He is a God who plants seeds, who sides with what is fragile. Being all-powerful, he has no need to prove himself. He issues invitations, then waits: will anyone hear his voice, turn round, and respond?

The Lord’s patience seems scandalous to folk who think themselves equipped to judge the intentions of a God in whom they don’t believe. To us, striving to be faithful, it is a cause for wonder. The incarnation isn’t magic; God does not touch our world with a wand to make it shining, bright, and pink. Instead, he heals our nature and frees its potential. The world is a place of extortion; human beings are inclined to cruelty. That’s the state of affairs. Such are sin’s wages. As Christians, we name them. The sickness is manifest. The cure is this: that within our disordered world, Christ’s coming makes re-ordering possible. The darkness is not as compact as before. Its sooty fabric has been rent. And we are called, you and I, to make the tear ever wider, to let more, ever more, light in.

It’s for us to be makers of peace: that’s our beatitude. Such is God’s faith in us: he entrusts us with his mission. Christ’s reign is no dictatorship. It works by free adherence, draws us in by its dignity and beauty, then enables us by grace to transcend ourselves, to know God-made-man not as an abstraction but personally, enabled to live, pray, and act in his name. The coming of God into the world continues each time a child, woman or man says Yes, like Mary did, to God’s appeal, granting Christ a foothold. God does not, will not, force his peace upon us. He asks for leave to bestow it, presenting himself in weakness, risking our rejection. He makes himself vulnerable to an unfathomable degree. If at times he seems distant, could it be that we look for him in too high places? He comes to us, now as then, in poverty, so as not to make us afraid. What peace could issue from dread? This Christmas, let’s ask for courage to drop our defences before the God who seeks us out as a little child. It is in fragility, his and ours, that we shall find strength to serve the peaceful spread of his peaceful reign, bearing light into darkness, hope into despair, joy into sadness.