Midnight Mass - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Somewhere in the depths of our collection of family photographs is a picture of me that was taken about three days before the birth of my first child. It is not (I am the first to admit) a very flattering photo: it was taken in the middle of a summer heatwave; I had reached what might be described as the 'beached whale' stage of pregnancy; and I was clearly neither feeling nor looking my usual radiant best.

But for me, the significance of that particular photograph is the fact that I can remember exactly what was going through my head at the precise moment when it was taken. Because it had just hit me, very forcefully, that in two or three days' time, my life was going to be changed forever, in ways that I could not even begin to imagine. I had been preparing for this birth for months - but now that the moment was about to arrive, I suddenly realized how very little I knew about anything: would the child be a boy or a girl? Would it be healthy? Whom would it resemble? What kind of personality would it have? What kind of a mother would I prove to be? And what on earth would it feel like to look down at a newly born baby and think 'That child came from me and contains part of me'? I had absolutely no idea. For me it was completely uncharted territory - and it felt wonderful, and perplexing, and exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

The birth of a child is, at one level, an unremarkable event. During the course of our service here this evening, across the world, approximately 15,000 babies will have been born. (And, by the way, we should not forget that in the same period of time approximately 840 children will also have died.) But to return to my main point: it is fascinating that the birth of a child manages to be so totally commonplace, and yet, in human terms, so extraordinarily life-changing.

A newly born child is both vulnerable and dependent. No young child can flourish, or even survive, without the continual care and attention of those around it: those who provide it with food and warmth and shelter and support and (hopefully) affection; and, in cultures that are wealthy enough to be able to assume such things as a basic right, those who will also provide that child with basic health care and education. A newly born child may be a gift - but it is a gift that will always requires some very significant things from us, the recipients.

If the birth of my own first child felt like entering completely unknown territory, then I wonder how it must have felt for the parents of the child Jesus, who really were caught up in events that were so very much greater than they were - events that would lead  ... who knew where? For theirs was a child whose coming into the world would transform the lives of far more than his parents and next of kin; the birth of this child marked not merely the arrival of a new life, but the dawn of a new era. 

Which makes it all the more bizarre that this birth was to take place in such extraordinarily unsuitable circumstances. God enters his world and comes to save his people, not in glory and majesty and might, but in utter helplessness: as the child of an unmarried mother, conceived in dubious circumstances, and born far from home in a filthy animal shed in an obscure Palestinian town. 

And yet, oddly enough there is a strange and mysterious logic to this. Because if you really want to understand the true meaning of generosity, do not look to the wealthy, for whom it costs little, but rather to the poor from whom it asks everything. If you really want to learn the true meaning and cost of loving, then look not to the secure and the comfortable and the much-loved, but rather to the grief-stricken and the broken-hearted. And, in similar vein, if you really want to feel the presence and understand the ways of God, then start by looking in those places where God is most needed.

Many years ago I stumbled across a poem that, for me, nails the bizarre and unexpected and life-giving truth that lies at the heart of the Christmas story, in a particularly powerful way. And, appropriately enough, I found it in the most surprising and unexpected of places - buried in an obscure novel called The Sixth Beatitude by Radclyffe Hall. It goes like this:

Mary the mother sat rocking her child

'Now who will be kind to my little Jesus?'

The beasts gathered round and their eyes were mild

As they rested on Mary the undefiled

On Mary the mother who rocked her child,

'Now who will be kind to my little Jesus?'


Mary the mother began to weep,

'Now who will be kind to my little Jesus?'

Born on a night when the snow is so deep -

So cold, so cold that he cannot sleep.'

Mary the mother began to weep.

'Now who will be kind to my little Jesus?'


Then came the widow in weeds of grief;

'I will be kind to your little Jesus';

Then came the leper, the cripple, the thief:

'We will be kind to your little Jesus.'

Then came the woman in robes of sin,

And her hair was loosed from its golden pin,

And her name, it was Mary Magdalen.

'I will be kind to your little Jesus.'


Christ, the Light of the world, has come into the world - the most tremendous gift of all. But as a result of that gift we stand under judgment. Not the terrifying judgment of a powerful intimidating deity - but rather the judgment that is posed by a helpless, vulnerable, newly born child, who simply by his presence in our midst is asking a question of us: 'Are you here for me? What can you give?'

Merry Christmas!



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