A Sermon for the Christmas Morning Eucharist
Today we sing of joyful tidings. Today we hymn a glad triumphal song. And yet, traditional carols echo not only in our hearts but throughout a world that is being ravaged by a pandemic; where diseases in addition to Covid-19 are virulent and destructive, and their effects only compound worse economic and societal inequality. Where corruption and autocracy in government; violence and imperialism; exacerbate and accelerate the dangers of climate collapse – and the extreme weather, famine, drought, and mass extinction events that threaten life on the earth.
To misquote Boney M, or Psalm 137, depending on how you best remember these words: how can we sing the Lord’s song in these strange times? How can we force our voices into a tune of hopefulness now?
These are times of fear and of a lack of peace … and times when these dangers are felt in places where there is much more substantial deprivation and danger than most people face in East Barnet. In these times and in many lands, it seems unnatural, insensitive, even untruthful, to try and sing ‘joyful tidings’, even at Christmas.
At the first Christmas, before it was even so named; at the birth of a child who would be called the Prince of Peace; the world was also scarred by fear and by the rule of force. For Jesus was born under the rule of Rome; born under imperial oppression, and the threat of violence; born one of a people whose land and freedom were constrained, and whose history had been shaped, by slaveries, invasions, exiles, and would be shaped by massacres and genocides. Jesus knew a world that was without justice and where there was no peace in its heavenly sense.
The gospel of Matthew even says that, in his infancy, Jesus’ family were displaced, running from violence and seeking asylum and refuge from the danger of death by crossing international borders. The Great Messiah – Lord and King – knew that this is a world of deep darkness, and experienced it as such. That is one reason why it is perhaps most appropriate at Christmas to consider the aid we can offer to those who today struggle to survive in the dangers of a broken and threatened world – and we do so this year by offering our retiring collections over Christmas toward Christian Aid’s Crisis Appeal for Afghanistan.
Jesus knew no justice and no peace in the time and place where he was born; and yet as a man he talked of both, and he lived and died in such a way that both became real in his person.
The Lord’s song of justice and peace, sung in the cry of a child, sung by God in Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, is something that then joined fully with the chorus of lament and the words of the needy that express the world’s darkness. And it did so with a hope that started a new theme, which transformed all the music of all our lives with a harmonic of deep and challenging joy.
It’s a theme found in God’s promise of his continual love for the Jewish people, that would then influence all people who are seeking ‘endless peace … with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore’. It’s a theme composed in heaven and at the first Christmas sung on earth by the presence of the one who would show us peace, by living it: The Lord’s song is someone whose hopeful presence transposes all our dirges and fearful melodies into his new key.
We can then hear earth begin to sing in tune with heaven – but not a song of comforting, saccharine ‘joyfulness’ – the kind of joyful tidings that jar against reality – instead a song calling with authority for deliverance for the oppressed; a song promising redemption and freedom for the whole of creation; and a song foretelling the end danger and destruction of evil, but experiencing their effects to the full. A song where joy’s real presence among pain, injustice, cruelty, and fear, transforms them by resisting and absorbing their power.
These are also some of the virtues of a type of song called Spirituals. Sung by slaves forced to labour on plantations in the American South, they are often remembered as work songs or as ways of raising the slaves’ spirits – forced cheerfulness among an oppressed population. But they are far more than they seem.
Go Down Moses is catchy, and pretty upbeat. And it is a retelling God’s deliverance from injustice – from slavery in particular. It recalls how God’s own passion is that all exploiters of human misery, must ‘Let my people go!’ And that his people are the ones who require release and freedom.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is more than a modern rugby tune. It offers hidden encouragement to take freedom’s path through life – and across a river to a land of safety and plenty – to Canaan: to Canada: where slavery was abolished.
Wade in the Water might be taken as piece of religious as opposed to literal escapism, with its echo of baptism, but it was a song of slave resistance: offering advice to fugitives from slavery’s horrors to wade in water to keep their scent from parties pursuing them with hounds. It also sings out the ultimate subversion of slavery’s pricing of human life: for in Christian baptism, all are one body and of one value in Christ; in whom there is no slave or free, but in whom the ultimate freedom is a recognition of God’s loving valuation of all.
Today we sing songs which, in Jesus’ birth, tell of heaven’s solidarity with those who are eager for words of hope. Today we sing songs which offer resistance to all who would silence God’s word of hope. Today we sing, conscious that God’s music transforms our own jaunty, inconsistent tunefulness into a real authenticity with a promise of truth sung; of justice demanded; of grace appearing; of peace on earth, born.
Today we sing, for ‘a child has been born for us, a son given to us …’ to sing into the world God’s new song of abiding hope.